How did pygmy perch swim across the desert?

“Pygmy perch swam across the desert”

As regular readers of The G-CAT are likely aware, my first ever scientific paper was published this week. The paper is largely the results of my Honours research (with some extra analysis tacked on) on the phylogenomics (the same as phylogenetics, but with genomic data) and biogeographic history of a group of small, endemic freshwater fishes known as the pygmy perch. There are a number of different messages in the paper related to biogeography, taxonomy and conservation, and I am really quite proud of the work.

Southern_pygmy_perch 1 MHammer
A male southern pygmy perch, which usually measures 6-8 cm long.

To my honest surprise, the paper has received a decent amount of media attention following its release. Nearly all of these have focused on the biogeographic results and interpretations of the paper, which is arguably the largest component of the paper. In these media releases, the articles are often opened with “…despite the odds, new research has shown how a tiny fish managed to find its way across the arid Australian continent – more than once.” So how did they manage it? These are tiny fish, and there’s a very large desert area right in the middle of Australia, so how did they make it all the way across? And more than once?!

 The Great (southern) Southern Land

To understand the results, we first have to take a look at the context for the research question. There are seven officially named species of pygmy perches (‘named’ is an important characteristic here…but we’ll go into the details of that in another post), which are found in the temperate parts of Australia. Of these, three are found with southwest Western Australia, in Australia’s only globally recognised biodiversity hotspot, and the remaining four are found throughout eastern Australia (ranging from eastern South Australia to Tasmania and up to lower Queensland). These two regions are separated by arid desert regions, including the large expanse of the Nullarbor Plain.

The distributions of pygmy perch species across Australia. The dots and labels refer to different sampling sites used in the study. A: the distribution of western pygmy perches, and essentially the extent of the southwest WA biodiversity hotspot region. B: the distribution of eastern pygmy perches, excluding N. oxleyana which occurs in upper NSW/lower QLD (indicated in C). C: the distributions relative to the map of Australia. The black region in the middle indicates the Nullarbor Plain. 


The Nullarbor Plain is a remarkable place. It’s dead flat, has no trees, and most importantly for pygmy perches, it also has no standing water or rivers. The plain was formed from a large limestone block that was pushed up from beneath the Earth approximately 15 million years ago; with the progressive aridification of the continent, this region rapidly lost any standing water drainages that would have connected the east to the west. The remains of water systems from before (dubbed ‘paleodrainages’) can be seen below the surface.

Nullarbor Plain photo
See? Nothing here. Photo taken near Watson, South Australia. Credit: Benjamin Rimmer.

Biogeography of southern Australia

As one might expect, the formation of the Nullarbor Plain was a huge barrier for many species, especially those that depend on regular accessible water for survival. In many species of both plants and animals, we see in their phylogenetic history a clear separation of eastern and western groups around this time; once widely distributed species become fragmented by the plain and diverged from one another. We would most certainly expect this to be true of pygmy perch.

But our questions focus on what happened before the Nullarbor Plain arrived in the picture. More than 15 million years ago, southern Australia was a massively different place. The climate was much colder and wetter, even in central Australia, and we even have records of tropical rainforest habitats spreading all the way down to Victoria. Water-dependent animals would have been able to cross the southern part of the continent relatively freely.

Biogeography of the enigmatic pygmy perches

This is where the real difference between everything else and pygmy perch happens. For most species, we see only one east and west split in their phylogenetic tree, associated with the Nullarbor Plain; before that, their ancestors were likely distributed across the entire southern continent and were one continuous unit.

Not for pygmy perch, though. Our phylogenetic patterns show that there were multiple splits between eastern and western ancestral pygmy perch. We can see this visually within the phylogenetic tree; some western species of pygmy perches are more closely related, from an evolutionary perspective, to eastern species of pygmy perches than they are to other western species. This could imply a couple different things; either some species came about by migration from east to west (or vice versa), and that this happened at least twice, or that two different ancestral pygmy perches were distributed across all of southern Australia and each split east-west at some point in time. These two hypotheses are called “multiple invasion” and “geographic paralogy”, respectively.

The phylogeny of pygmy perches produced by this study, containing 45 different individuals across all species of pygmy perch. Species are labelled in the tree in brackets, and their geographic location (east or west) is denoted by the colour on the right. This tree clearly shows more than one E/W separation, as not all eastern species are within the same clade. For example, despite being an eastern species, N. variegata is more closely related to Nth. balstoni or N. vittata than to the other eastern species (N. australisN. obscuraN. oxleyana and N. ‘flindersi’.

So, which is it? We delved deeper into this using a type of analysis called ‘ancestral clade reconstruction’. This tries to guess the likely distributions of species ancestors using different models and statistical analysis. Our results found that the earliest east-west split was due to the fragmentation of a widespread ancestor ~20 million years ago, and a migration event facilitated by changing waterways from the Nullarbor Plain pushing some eastern pygmy perches to the west to form the second group of western species. We argue for more than one migration across Australia since the initial ancestor of pygmy perches must have expanded from some point (either east or west) to encompass the entirety of southern Australia.

The ancestral area reconstruction of pygmy perches, estimated using the R package BioGeoBEARS. The different pie charts denote the relative probability of the possible distributions for the species or ancestor at that particular time; colours denote exactly where the distribution is (following the legend). As you can see, the oldest E/W split at 21 million years ago likely resulted from a single widespread ancestor, with it’s range split into an east and west group. The second E/W event, at 15 million years ago, most likely reflects a migration from east to west, resulting in the formation of the N. vittata species group. This coincides with the Nullarbor Plain, so it’s likely that changes in waterway patterns allowed some eastern pygmy perch to move westward as the area became more arid.

So why do we see this for pygmy perch and no other species? Well, that’s the real mystery; out of all of the aquatic species found in southeast and southwest Australia, pygmy perch are one of the worst at migrating. They’re very picky about habitat, small, and don’t often migrate far unless pushed (by, say, a flood). It is possible that unrecorded extinct species of pygmy perch might help to clarify this a little, but the chances of finding a preserved fish fossil (let alone for a fish less than 8cm in size!) is extremely unlikely. We can really only theorise about how they managed to migrate.

Pygmy perch biogeo history
A diagram of the distribution of pygmy perch species over time, as suggested by the ancestral area reconstruction. A: the initial ancestor of pygmy perches was likely found throughout southern Australia. B: an unknown event splits the ancestor into an eastern and western group; the sole extant species of the W group is Nth. balstoniC: the ancestor of the eastern pygmy perches spreads towards the west, entering part of the pre-Nullarbor region. D: due to changes in the hydrology of the area, some eastern pygmy perches (the maroon colour in C) are pushed towards the west; these form N. vittata species and N. pygmaea. The Nullarbor Plain forms and effectively cuts off the two groups from one another, isolating them.

What does this mean for pygmy perches?

Nearly all species of pygmy perch are threatened or worse in the conservation legislation; there have been many conservation efforts to try and save the worst-off species from extinction. Pygmy perches provide a unique insight to the history of the Australian climate and may be a key in unlocking some of the mysteries of what our land was like so long ago. Every species is important for conservation and even those small, hard-to-notice creatures that we might forget about play a role in our environmental history.

Emotional science: passion, spirituality and curiosity

“Science is devoid of emotion”

Emotion and spirituality are concepts that inherently seem at odds with the fundamentally stoic, empirical nature of scientific research. Science is based on a rigorous system of objectivity, repeatability and empiricism that, at face value, appears to completely disregard subjective aspects such as emotion, spirituality or religion. But in the same way that this drives the division of art from science, removing these subjective components of science can take away some of the personal significance and driving factors of scientific discipline.

Emotions as a driving force in science

For many scientists, emotional responses to inquiry, curiosity and connection are important components of their initial drive to study science in the first place. The natural curiosity of humanity, the absolute desire to know and understand the world around us, is fundamental to scientific advancement (and is a likely source of science as a concept in the first place). We care deeply about understanding many aspects of the natural world, and for many there is a strong emotional connection to our study fields. Scientists are fundamentally drawn to this career path based on some kind of emotional desire to better understand it.

Although it’s likely a massive cliché, Contact is one of my favourite science-fiction movies for simultaneously tackling faith, emotion, rationality, and scientific progress. And no doubt any literary student could dissect these various themes over and over and discuss exactly how the movie balances the opposing concepts of faith in the divine and scientific inquiry (and the overlap of the two). But for me, the most heartfelt aspect the movie is the portrayal of Ellie Arroway: a person who is insatiably driven to science, to the point of sacrificing many things in her life (including faith). But she’s innately an emotional person; when her perspectives are challenged by her observations, it’s a profound moment for her as a person. Ellie, to me, represents scientists pretty well: passionate, driven, idealistic but rational and objective as best as she can be. These traits make her very admirable (and a great protagonist, as far as I’m concerned).

Ellie Arroway photo
Also, Jodie Foster is an amazing actress.

I would not, under ordinary circumstances, consider myself to be particularly sentimental or spiritual. I don’t believe in many spiritual concepts (including theism, the afterlife, or concepts of a ‘soul’), and try to handle life as rationally and objectively as I can (sometimes not very successful given my mental health). But I can’t even remotely deny that there is a strong emotional or spiritual attachment to my field of science. Without delving too much into my own personal narrative (at the risk of being a little self-absorbed and pretentious; it’s also been covered a little in another post), the emotional connection I share with the life of Earth is definitely something that drove me to study biology and evolution. The sense of wonder and curiosity at observing the myriad of creatures and natural selection can concoct. The shared feeling of being alive in all of its aspects. The mystery of the world being seen through eyes very different to ours.

Headcase headspace artwork
More shameless self-promotion of my own artwork. You’ll notice that most of my art includes some science-based aspects (usually related to biology/evolution/genetics), largely because that’s what inspires me. Feeling passionate and emotional about science drives both my artistic and scientific sides.

Attachment to the natural world

I’d guess that there are many people who say they feel a connection to nature and animals in some form or another. I definitely think this is the case for many biologists of various disciplines: an emotional connection to the natural world is a strong catalyst for curiosity and it’s no surprise that this could develop later in life to a scientific career. For some scientists, an emotional attachment to a particular taxonomic group is a defining driving force in their choice of academic career; science provides a platform to understand, conserve and protect the species we hold most dear.

Me with cockatoo
A photo of me with Adelaide Zoo’s resident Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Banks (his position was unsolicited, for reference). Giving people the opportunity to have an emotional connection (as silly as that might be) with nature can improve conservation efforts and environmental protection, boost eco-based tourism, and potentially even make people happier


An appeal to reason and emotion 

Although it’s of course always better to frame an argument or present research in an objective, rational matter, people have a tendency to respond well to appeal to emotion. In this sense, presenting scientific research as something that can be evocative, powerful and emotional is, in my belief, a good tactic to get the general public invested in science. Getting people to care about our research, our study species, and our findings is a difficult task but one that is absolutely necessary for the longevity and development of science at both the national and global level.

Pretending the science is emotionless and apathetic is counterproductive to the very things that drove us to do the science in the first place. Although we should attempt to be aware of, and distance, our emotions from the objective, data-based analysis of our research, admitting and demonstrating our passions (and why we feel so passionate) is critical in distilling science into the general population. Science should be done rationally and objectively but driven by emotional characteristics such as wonder, curiosity and fascination.

The history of histories: philosophy in biogeography

Biogeography of the globe

The distribution of organisms across the Earth, both over time and across space, is a fundamental aspect of the field of biogeography. But our understanding of the mechanisms by which organisms are distributed across the globe, and how this affects their evolution, can be at times highly enigmatic. Why are Australia and the Americas the only two places that have marsupials? How did lemurs get all the way to Madagascar, and why are they the only primate that has made the trip? How did Darwin’s famous finches get over to the Galápagos, and why are there so many species of them there now?

All of these questions can be addressed with a combination of genetic, environmental and ecological information across a variety of timescales. However, the overall field of biogeography (and phylogeography as a derivative of it) has traditionally been largely rooted on a strong yet changing theoretical basis. The earliest discussions and discoveries related to biogeography as a field of science date back to the 18th Century, and to Carl Linnaeus (to whom we owe our binomial classification system) and Alexander von Humboldt. These scientists (and undoubtedly many others of that era) were among the first to notice how organisms in similar climates (e.g. Australia, South Africa and South America) showed similar physical characteristics despite being so distantly separated (both in their groups and geographic distance). The communities of these regions also appeared to be highly similar. So how could this be possible over such huge distances?

Arctic and fennec final
A pretty unreasonable mechanism (and example) of dispersal in foxes. And yes, all tourists wear sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts, even arctic fox ones.


Dispersal or vicariance?

Two main explanations for these patterns are possible; dispersal and vicariance. As one might expect, dispersal denotes that an ancestral species was distributed in one of these places (referred to as the ‘centre of origin’) before it migrated and inhabited the other places. Contrastingly, vicariance suggests that the ancestral species was distributed everywhere originally, covering all contemporary ranges within it. However, changes in geography, climate or the formation of other barriers caused the range of the ancestor to fragment, with each fragmented group evolving into its own distinct species (or group of species).

Dispersal vs vicariance islands
An example of dispersal vs. vicariance patterns of biogeography in an island bird (pale blue). In the top example, the sequential separation of parts of the island also cause parts of the distribution of the original bird species to become fragmented. These fragments each evolve independently of their ancestor and form new species (red, and then blue). In the bottom example, the island geography doesn’t change but in rare events a bird disperses from the main island onto a new island. The new selective pressures of that island cause the dispersed birds to evolve into new species (red and blue). In both examples, islands that were recently connected or are easy to disperse across do not generate new species (in the sandy island in the bottom right). You’ll notice that both processes result in the same biogeographic distribution of species.

In initial biogeographic science, dispersal was the most heavily favoured explanation. At the time, there was no clear mechanism by which organisms could be present all over the globe without some form of dispersal: it was generally believed that the world was a static, unmoving system. Dispersal was well supported by some biological evidence such as the diversification of Darwin’s finches across the Galápagos archipelago. Thus, this concept was supported through the proposals of a number of prominent scientists such as Charles Darwin and A.R. Wallace. For others, however, the distance required for dispersal (such as across entire oceans) seemed implausible and biologically unrealistic.


A paradigm shift in biogeography

Two particular developments in theory are credited with a paradigm shift in the field; cladistics and plate tectonics. Cladistics simply involved using shared biological characteristics to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of species (think like phylogenetics, but using physical traits instead of genetic sequence). Just as importantly, however, was plate tectonic theory, which provided a clear way for organisms to spread across the planet. By understanding that, deep in the past, all continents had been directly connected to one another provides a convenient explanation for how species groups spread. Instead of requiring for species to travel across entire oceans, continental drift meant that one widespread and ancient ancestor on the historic supercontinent (Pangaea; or subsequently Gondwana and Laurasia) could become fragmented. It only required that groups were very old, but not necessarily very dispersive.

Lemur dispersal
Surf’s up, dudes! Although continental drift was no doubt an important factor in the distribution and dispersal of many organisms on Earth, it actually probably wasn’t the reason lemurs got to Madagascar. Sorry for the mislead.

From these advances in theory, cladistic vicariance biogeography was born. The field rapidly overtook dispersal as the most likely explanation for biogeographic patterns across the globe by not only providing a clear mechanism to explain these but also an analytical framework to test questions relating to these patterns. Further developments into the analytical backbone of cladistic vicariance allowed for more nuanced questions of biogeography to be asked, although still fundamentally ignored the role of potential dispersals in explaining species’ distributions.

Modern philosophy of biogeography

So, what is the current state of the field? Well, the more we research biogeographic patterns with better data (such as with genomics) the more we realise just how complicated the history of life on Earth can be. Complex modelling (such as Bayesian methods) allow us to more explicitly test the impact of Earth history events on our study species, and can provide more detailed overview of the evolutionary history of the species (such as by directly estimating times of divergence, amount of dispersal, extent of range shifts).

From a theoretical perspective, the consistency of patterns of groups is always in question and exactly what determines what species occurs where is still somewhat debatable. However, the greater number of types of data we can now include (such as geological, paleontological, climatic, hydrological, genetic…the list goes on!) allows us to paint a better picture of life on Earth. By combining information about what we know happened on Earth, with what we know has happened to species, we can start to make links between Earth history and species history to better understand how (or if) these events have shaped evolution.

Surviving the Real-World Apocalypse

The changing world

Climate change seems to be the centrefold of a large amount of scientific research and media attention, and rightly so: it has the capacity to affect every living organism on the planet. It’s our duty as curators and residents of Earth to be responsible for our influences on the global environmental stage. While a significant part of this involves determining causes and solutions to our contributions to climate change, we also need to know how extensive the effects will be: for example, how can we predict how well species will do in the future?

Predicting the effect of climate change on all of the world’s biodiversity is an immense task. Climate change itself is a complicated system, and causes diverse, interconnected and complex alterations to both global and local climate. Adding on top of this, though, is that climate affects different species in different ways; where some species might be sensitive to some climatic variables (such as rainfall, available sunlight, seasonality), others may be more tolerant to the same factors. But all living things share some requirements, so surely there must be some consistency in their responses to climate change, right?

Apocalypse 2
Lucky for Mr Fish here, he’s responding to a (very dramatic) climate change much, much better than his bird counterpart.

How predictable are species responses to climate change?

Well, evidence would surprisingly suggest not. Many species, even closely related ones, can show very different responses to the exact same climatic pressures or biogeographical events. There are a number of different traits that might affect a species’ ability to adapt, particularly their adaptive genetic diversity (which underpins ‘adaptive potential’). Thus, we need good information of a variety of genetic, physiological and life history traits to be able to make predictions about how likely a species is to adapt and respond to future (and current) climate changes.

Although this can be hard to study in species of high extinction risk (getting a good number of samples is always an issue…), traditional phylogeographic methods might help us to make some comparisons. See, although the modern Earth is rapidly changing (undoubtedly influenced by human society), the climate of the globe has always varied to some degree. There has always been some tumultuousness in the climate and specific Earth history events like volcano eruptions, sea-level changes, or glaciation periods (‘ice ages’) have had diverse effects on organisms globally.

Using comparative phylogeography to predict species responses

One tool for looking at how different species have, in the past, responded to the same biogeographical force is the domain of ‘comparative phylogeography’. Phylogeography itself is something we have discussed before: the ‘comparative’ aspect simply means comparing (with complex statistical methods) these patterns across different and often unrelated species to see how universal (‘congruent’) or unique (‘incongruent’) these patterns are among species. The more broadly we look at the species community in the region, the more we can observe widespread effects of any given environmental or geographical event: if we only look at fish, for example, we might not to be able to infer what response mammals, birds or invertebrates have had to our given event. Sometimes this still meets the scale we wish to focus; other times, we want to see how all the species of an area have been affected.

Actual island diagram
An (very busy) example of different species responses to a single environmental event. In this example, we have three species (a fish, a lizard, and a bird) all living on the same island. In the middle of the island, there is a small mountain range (A). At this point in time, all three species are connected across the whole island; fish can travel via lakes and wetlands (green arrows), lizards can travel across the land (blue arrow) and birds can fly anywhere. However, as the mountain range grows with tectonic movements, the waterways are altered and the north and south are disconnected (B). The fish species is now split into two evolutionarily separate groups (green and gold), while lizards and birds are not. As the range expands further, however, the dispersal route for lizards is cut off, causing them to eventually also become separated into blue and black groups (C). Birds, however, have no problems flying over the mountain range and remain one unified and connected orange group over time (D). Thus, each species has a different response to the formation of the mountain range.
Evol history of island diagram
The phylogenetic history of the three different species in the above example. As you can see, each lineage has a slightly different pattern; birds show no divergences at all, whereas the timing of the lizard and fish N/S splits are different (i.e. temporally incongruent).

Typically, comparative phylogeographic studies have looked at the neutral components of species’ evolution (as is the realm of traditional phylogeography). This includes studying the size of populations over time, how well connected they are and were, what their spatial patterns are and how these relate to the environment. Comparing all of these patterns across species can allow us to start painting a fuller picture of the history of biota in a region. In this way, we can start to see exactly which species have shown what responses and start to relate these to the characteristics that allowed them to respond in that certain way (and including adaptation in our studies). So, what kinds of traits are important?

What traits matter? Who wins?

Often, we find that life history traits of an organism better dictates how they will respond to a certain pressure than other factors such as phylogeny (e.g. one group does not always do better than another). Instead, individual species with certain physical characteristics might handle the pressure better than others. For example, a fish, bird and snake that are all able to tolerate higher temperatures than other fish, birds or snakes in that region are more likely to survive a drought. In this case, none of the groups (fish, birds or snakes) inherently do better than the other two groups. Thus, it can be hard to predict how a large swathe of species will respond to any given environmental change, unless we understand the physical characteristics of every species.

Climate change risk flowchart
A generalised framework of various factors, and their interactions, on the vulnerability of species under current and future climate changes by Williams et al. 2018. The schematic includes genetic, ecological, physical and environmental factors and how these can interact with one another to alleviate or exacerbate the risk of extinction.

We can also see that other physiological or ecological traits, such as climatic preferences and tolerance thresholds, can be critical for adapting to climatic pressures. Naturally, the genetic diversity of species is also an important component underlying their ability to adapt to these new selective pressures and to survive into the future. Trying to incorporate all of these factors into a projected model can be difficult, but with more data of higher quality we can start to make more refined predictions. But by understanding how particular traits influence how well a species may adapt to a changing climate, as well as knowing the what traits different species have, might just be the key to predicting who wins and who dies in the real-world Game of Thrones.