What is a species, anyway?

This is Part 1 of a four part miniseries on the process of speciation; how we get new species, how we can see this in action, and the end results of the process. This week, we’ll start with a seemingly obvious question: what is a species?

The definition of a ‘species’

‘Species’ are a human definition of the diversity of life. When we talk about the diversity of life, and the myriad of creatures and plants on Earth, we often talk about species diversity. This might seem glaringly obvious, but there’s one key issue: what is a species, anyway? While we might like to think of them as discrete and obvious groups (a dog is definitely not the same species as a cat, for example), the concept of a singular “species” is actually the result of human categorisation.

In reality, the diversity of life is spread across a huge spectrum of differentiation: from things which are closely related but still different to us (like chimps), to more different again (other mammals), to hardly relatable at all (bacteria and plants). So, what is the cut-off for calling something a species, and not a different genus, family, or kingdom? Or alternatively, at what point do we call a specific sub-group of a species as a sub-species, or another species entirely?

This might seem like a simple question: we look at two things, and they look different, so they must be different species, right? Well, of course, nature is never simple, and the line between “different” and “not different” is very blurry. Here’s an example: consider that you knew nothing about the history, behaviour or genetics of dogs. If you simply looked at all the different breeds of dogs on Earth, you might suggest that there are hundreds of species of domestic dogs. That seems a little excessive though, right? In fact, the domestic dog, Eurasian wolf, and the Australian dingo are all the same species (but different subspecies, along with about 38 others…but that’s another issue altogether).

Dogs
Morphology can be misleading for identifying species. In this example, we have A) a dog, B) also a dog, C) still a dog, D) yet another dog, and E) not a dog. For the record, A-D are all Canis lupus of some variety; and are domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), C is a dingo (Canis lupus dingo) and is a grey wolf (Canis lupus lupus). E, however, is the Ethiopian wolf, Canis simensis.

How do we describe species?

This method of describing species based on how they look (their morphology) is the very traditional approach to taxonomy. And for a long time, it seemed to work…until we get to more complex scenarios like the domestic dog. Or scenarios where two species look fairly similar, but in reality have evolved entirely differently for a very, very long time. Or groups which look close to more than one other species. So how do we describe them instead?

Cats and foxes
A), a fox. B), a cat. C), a foxy cat? A catty fox? A cat-fox hybrid? Something unrelated to cat or a fox?

 

Believe it or not, there are dozens of ways of deciding what is a species and what isn’t. In Speciation (2004), Coyne & Orr count at least 25 different reported Species Concepts that had been suggested within science, based on different requirements such as evolutionary history, genetic identity, or ecological traits. These different concepts can often contradict one another about where to draw the line between species…so what do we use?

The Biological Species Concept (BSC)

The most commonly used species concept is called the Biological Species Concept (BSC), which denotes that “species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups” (Mayr, 1942). In short, a population is considered a different species to another population if an individual from one cannot reliably breed to form fertile, viable offspring with an individual from the other. We often refer to this as “reproductive isolation.” It’s important to note that reproductive isolation doesn’t mean they can’t breed at all: just that the hybrid offspring will not live a healthy life and produce its own healthy offspring.

For example, a horse and zebra can breed to produce a zorse, however zorse are fundamentally infertile (due to the different number of chromosomes between a horse and a zebra) and thus a horse is a different species to a zebra. However, a German Shepherd and a chihuahua can breed and make a hybrid mutt, so they are the same species.

zorse
A zorse, which shows its hybrid nature through zebra stripes and horse colouring. These two are still separate species since zorses are infertile, and thus are not a singular stable entity.

You might naturally ask why reproductive isolation is apparently so important for deciding species. Most directly, this means that groups don’t share gene pools at all (since genetic information is introduced and maintained over time through breeding events), which causes them to be genetically independent of one another. Thus, changes in the genetic make-up of one species shouldn’t (theoretically) transfer into the gene pool of another species through hybrids. This is an important concept as the gene pool of a species is the basis upon which natural selection and evolution act: thus, reproductively isolated species may evolve in very different manners over time.

RI example
An example of how reproductive isolation maintains genetic and evolutionary independence of species. In A), our cat groups are robust species, reproductively isolated from one another (as shown by the black box). When each species undergoes natural selection and their genetic variation changes (colour changes on the cats and DNA), these changes are kept within each lineage. This contrasts to B), where genetic changes can be transferred between species. Without reproductive isolation, evolution in the orange lineage and the blue lineage can combine within hybrids, sharing the evolutionary pathways of both ancestral species.

Pitfalls of the BSC

Just because the BSC is the most used concept doesn’t make it infallible, however. Many species on Earth don’t easily demonstrate reproductive isolation from one another, nor does the concept even make sense for asexually reproducing species. If an individual reproduced solely asexually (like many bacteria, or even some lizards), then by the BSC definition every individual is an entirely different species…which seems a little excessive. Even in sexually reproducing organisms, it can be hard to establish reproductive isolation, possibly because the species never come into contact physically.

This raises the debate of whether two species could, let alone will, hybridise in nature, which can be difficult to determine. And if two species do produce hybrid offspring, assessing their fertility or viability can be difficult to detect without many generations of breeding and measurements of fitness (hybrids may not be sustainable in nature if they are not well adapted to their environment and thus the two species are maintained as separate identities).

Hybrid birds
An example of unfit hybrids causing effective reproductive isolation. In this example, we have two different bird species adapted to very different habitats; a smaller, long-tailed bird (left) adapted to moving through dense forest, and a large, longer-legged bird (right) adapted to traversing arid deserts. When (or if) these two species hybridised, the resultant offspring would be middle of the road, possessing too few traits to be adaptive in either the forest or the desert and no fitting intermediate environment available. Measuring exactly how unfit this hybrid would be is a difficult task in establishing species boundaries.

 

Integrative taxonomy

To try and account for the issues with the BSC, taxonomists try to push for the usage of “integrative taxonomy”. This means that species should be defined by multiple different agreeing concepts, such as reproductive isolation, genetic differentiation, behavioural differences, and/or ecological traits. The more traits that can separate the two, the greater support there is for the species to be separated: if they disagree, then more information is needed to determine exactly whether or not that should be called different species. Debates about taxonomy are ongoing and are likely going to be relevant for years to come, but form critical components of understanding biodiversity, patterns of evolution, and creating effective conservation legislation to protect endangered or threatened species (for whichever groups we decide are species).

 

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.

Pygmyperch_distributionmap
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.

MCC_geographylabelled
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.

BGB_figure
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.

All the world in the palm of your hand: whole genome sequencing for evolution and conservation

Building an entire genome

If bigger is better, then biggest is best. Having the genome of a particular study species fully sequenced allows us to potentially look at all of the genetic variation in the entire gene pool: but how do we sequence the entirety of the genome? And what are the benefits of having a whole genome to refer to?

Whole genome assembly
A very, very simplified overview of whole genome sequencing. Similar to other genomic technologies, we start by fragmenting the genome into much smaller, easier to sequence parts (reads). We then use a computer algorithm which pieces these reads together into a consecutive sequence based on overlapping DNA sequence (like building a chain out of Lego blocks). From this assembled genome, we can then attach annotations using information from other species’ genomes or genetic studies, which can correlate a particular sequence to a gene, a function of that gene, and the resultant protein from these gene (although not always are all of these aspects included).

Well, assembling the whole genome of an organism for the first time is a very tricky process. It involves taking DNA sequence from only a few individuals, breaking them down into smaller fragments and multiplying these fragments into the billions (moreorless the same process used in other genomics technologies: the real difference is that we need the full breadth of the genome so that we don’t miss any spaces). From these fragments, we use a complex computer algorithm which builds up a consensus sequence like a Lego tower; by finding parts of sequences which overlap, the software figures out which pieces connect to one another. Hopefully, we eventually end up with one very long continuous sequence; the genome! Sometimes, we might end with a few very large blocks (called contigs), but this is also useful for analyses (correlated with how many/big blocks there are). With this full genome, we use information from other more completed genomes (such as those from model species like humans, mice or even worms) to figure out which sections of the genome relate to specific genes. We can then annotate these sections by labelling them as clear genes, complete with start and end point, and attach a particular physical function of that gene.

The benefits of whole genomes

Having an entire genome as a reference is an extremely helpful tool in conservation and evolutionary studies. The first, and perhaps most obvious benefit, is the sheer scale of the data we can use. By having the entirety of the genome available, we can use potentially billions of base pairs of sequence in our genetic analyses (for reference, the human genome is >3 billion base pairs long). Even if we don’t sequence the full genome for all of our samples, having a reference genome as basis for assembly our reduced datasets significantly improves the quantity and quality of sequences we can use.

Another very important benefit is the ability to prescribe function in our studies. Many of our processes for obtaining data, even for genomic technologies, use random and anonymous fragments of the genome. Although this is a cost-effective way to obtain a very large amount of data, it unfortunately means that we often have no idea which part of the genome our sequences came from. This means that we don’t know which sequences relate to specific genes, and even if we did we would have no idea what those genes are or do! But with an annotated genome, we can take even our fragmented sequence and check it against the genome and find out what genes are present.

Understanding adaptation

Based on that, it seems pretty obvious about exactly how having an annotated genome can help us in studies of adaptation. Knowing the functional aspect of our genetic data allows us to more directly determine how evolution is happening in nature; instead of only being able to say that two species are evolving differently from one another, for example, we can explicitly look at how they are evolving. Is one evolving tolerance to hotter temperatures? Are they evolving different genes to handle different diets? Are they evolving in response to an external influence, like a viral outbreak or changing climate? What are the physiological consequences of these changes? These questions are critical in understanding past and future evolution, and full genome analysis allows us to delve into them much deeper.

Manhattan plot example
A (slightly edited) figure of full genome comparisons between domestic dogs and wild wolves by Axelsson et al. (2013), with the aim of understanding the evolutionary changes associated with domestication. For avid readers, this figure probably looks familiar. This figure compares the genetic differentiation across the entire genome between dogs and wolves, with some sections of the genome (circled) showing clear differences. As there is an annotated dog genome, the authors then delved into these genes to understand the functional differences between the two. By comparing their genetic differences to functional genes, the authors can more explicitly suggest mechanisms or changes associated with the domestication process (such as adaptation to a starch-heavy and human-influenced diet).

 

 

This includes allowing us to better understand how adaptation actually works in nature. As we’ve discussed before, more traditional studies often assumed that single, or very few, genes were responsible for allowing a species to adapt and change, and that these genes had very strong effects on their physiology. But what we see far more often is polygenic adaptation; small changes in a very large number of genes which, combined together, allow the species to adapt and evolve. By having the entirety of the genome available, we are much more likely to capture all of the genes that are under natural selection in a particular population or species, painting a clearer picture of their evolutionary trajectory.

Understanding demography

The much larger dataset of full genomes is also important for understanding the non-adaptive parts of evolution; the demographic history. Given that selectively neutral impacts (e.g. reductions in population size) are likely to impact all of the genes in the gene pool somewhat equally, having a full genome allows us to more accurately infer the demographic state and historical patterns of species.

For both adaptive and non-adaptive variation, it is also important to consider what we call linkage disequilibrium. Genetic sequences that are physically close to each other in the genome will often be inherited together due to the imprecision of recombination (a fairly technical process, so I won’t delve into this): what this can mean is that if a gene is under very strong selection, then sequences around this gene will also look like they’re under selection too. This can give falsely positive adaptive genes (i.e. sequences that look like genes under selection but are just linked to a gene that is) or can interfere with demographic analyses (since they often assume no selection, or linkage to selection, on the sequences used). With a whole genome, we can actually estimate how far away a base pair has to be before it’s not linked anymore; we call these linkage blocks, and they’re very useful additions to analyses.

Linkage_example
An example of linkage as a process. We start with a particular sequence (top); during recombination, this sequence may randomly break and rearrange into different parts. In this example, I’ve simulated four different ‘breaks’ (dashed coloured lines) due to recombination. Each of these breaks leads to two separate blocks of fragments; for example, the break at the blue line results in the second two sequence blocks (middle). If we focus on one target base pair in the sequence (golden A), then we can see in some fragments it remains with certain bases, but sometimes it gets separated by the break. If we compare how often the golden A is in the same block (i.e. is co-inherited) as each of the other bases, across all 4 breaks, then we see that the bases that are closest to it (the golden A is represented by the golden bar) are almost always in the same block. This makes sense: the further away a base is from our target, the more likely that there will be a break between it. This is shown in the frequency distributions at the bottom: the left figure shows the actual frequencies of co-inheritance (i.e. linkage) using the top example and those 4 breaks. The right figure shows a more realistic depiction of how linkage looks in the genome; it rapidly decays as we move away from the target (although the width and rate of this can vary).

Improving conservation management

In a similar fashion to demography, full genome datasets can improve our estimates of relatedness and pedigrees in captive breeding programs. The massive scale of whole genomes allows us to more easily trace the genealogical history of individuals, allowing us to assign parents more accurately. This also helps with our estimations of genetic relatedness, arguably the most critical aspect of genetic-based breeding programs. This is particularly helpful for species with tricky mating patterns, such as polyamory, brood spawning or difficult to track organisms.

Pedigrees
An example of how whole genomes can improve our estimation of pedigrees. Say we have a random individual (star), and we want to know how they fit into a particular family tree (pedigree). With only a few genes, we might struggle to pick where in the family it fits based on limited genetic information. With a larger genetic dataset (such as reduced-representation genomics), we might be able to cross off a few potential candidate spots but still have some trouble with a few places (due to unknown parents, polygamy or issues with genetic analysis). With whole genomes, we should be able to much better clarify the whole pedigree and find exactly where our star individual fits in the tree (red circle). It is thanks to whole genomes, we can do those ancestry analyses that have gone viral lately!

The way forwards

While many non-model species are still lacking in the available genomic information, whole genomes are progressively being sequenced for more and more species. As this astronomical dataset grows, our ability to investigate, discover and test theories about evolution, natural selection and conservation will also improve. Many projects already exist which aim specifically to increase the number of whole genomes available for certain taxonomic groups such as birds and bats: these will no doubt prove to be invaluable resources for future studies.

Not that kind of native-ity: endemism and invasion of Australia

The endemics of Australia

Australia is world-renowned for the abundant and bizarre species that inhabit this wonderful island continent. We have one of the highest numbers of unique species in the entire world (in the top few!): this is measured by what we call ‘endemism’. A species is considered endemic to a particular place or region if that it is the only place it occurs: it’s completely unique to that environment. In Australia, a whopping 87% of our mammals, 45% of our birds, 93% of our reptiles, 94% of our amphibians 24% of our fishes and 86% of our plants are endemic, making us a real biodiversity paradise! Some lists even label us as a ‘megadiverse country’, which sounds pretty awesome on paper. And although we traditionally haven’t been very good at looking after it, our array of species is a matter of some pride to Aussies.

Endemism map
A map representing the relative proportion of endemic species in Australia, generated through the Atlas of Living Australia. The colours range from no (white; 0% endemics) or little (blue) to high levels of endemism (red; 100% of species are endemic). As you can see, some biogeographic hotspots are clearly indicated (southwest WA, the east coast, the Kimberley ranges).

But the real question is: why are there so many endemics in Australia? What is so special about our country that lends to our unique flora and fauna? Although we naturally associate tropical regions with lush, vibrant and diverse life, most of Australia is complete desert. That said, most of our species are concentrated in the tropical regions of the country, particularly in the upper east coast and far north (the ‘Top End’).

There are a number of different factors which contribute to the high species diversity of Australia. Most notably is how isolated we are as a continent: Australia has been separated from most of the rest of the world for millions of years. In this time, the climate has varied dramatically as the island shifted northward, creating a variety of changing environments and unique ecological niches for species to specialise into. We refer to these species groups as ‘Gondwana relicts’, since their last ancestor with the rest of the world would have been distributed across the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago. These include marsupials, many birds groups (including ratites and megapodes), many fish groups and a plethora of others. A Gondwanan origin explains why they are only found within Australia, southern Africa and South America (the closest landmass that was also historically connected to Gondwana).

Early arrivals and naturalisation to the Australian ecosystem 

But not all of Australia’s species are so ancient and ingrained in the landscape. As Australia drifted northward and eventually collided with the Sunda plate (forming the mountain ranges across southeast Asia), many new species and groups managed to disperse into Australia. This includes the first indigenous people to colonise Australia, widely regarded as one of the oldest human civilisations and estimated to have arrived down under over 65 thousand years ago.

Eventually, this connection also brought with them one of our most iconic species; the dingo. Estimates of their arrival dates the migration at around 6 thousand years ago. As Australia’s only ‘native’ dog, there has been much debate about its status as an Australian icon. To call the dingo ‘native’ implies it’s always been there: but 6 thousand years is more than enough time to become ingrained within the ecosystem in a stable fashion. So, to balance the debate (and prevent the dingo from being labelled as an ‘invasive pest’ unfairly), we often refer to them as ‘naturalised’. This term helps us to disentangle modern-day pests, many of which our immensely destructive to the natural environment, from other species that have naturally migrated and integrated many years ago.

Patriotic dingo
Although it may not be a “true native”, the dingo will forever be a badge of our native species pride.

Invaders of the Australian continent

Of course, we can never ignore the direct impacts of humans on the ecosystem. Particularly with European settlement, another plethora of animals were introduced for the first time into Australia; these were predominantly livestock animals or hunting-related species (both as predators and prey). This includes the cane toad, widely regarded as one of the biggest errors in pest control on the planet.

When European settlers in the 1930s attempted to grow sugar cane in the far eastern part of the country, they found their crops decimated by a local beetle. In an effort to eradicate them, they brought over a species of cane toad, with the idea that they would control the beetle population and all would be well. Only, cane toads are particularly lazy and instead of targeting the cane beetles, they just thrived on all the other native invertebrates around. They’re also very resilient and adaptable (and highly toxic), so their numbers exploded and they’ve since spread across a large swathe of the country. Their toxic skin makes them fatal food objects for many native predators and they strongly compete against other similar native animals (such as our own amphibians). The cane toad introduction of 1935 is the poster child of how bad failed pest control can be.

DSC_0867_small
This guy here, he’s a bastard. Spotted in my parent’s backyard in Ipswich, QLD. Source: me, with spite.

But is native always better?

History tells a very stark tale about the poor native animals and the ravenous, rampaging pest species. Because of this, it is a widely adopted philosophical viewpoint that ‘native is always best’. And while I don’t disagree with the sentiment (of course we need to preserve our native wildlife, and not the massively overabundant pests), there are rare examples where nature is a little more complicated. In Australia, this is exemplified in the noisy miner.

The noisy miner is a small bird which, much like its name implies, is incredibly noisy and aggressive. It’s highly abundant, found predominantly throughout urban and suburban areas, and seems to dominate the habitat. It does this by bullying out other bird species from nesting grounds, creating a monopoly on the resource to the exclusion of many other species (even larger ones such as crows and magpies). Despite being native, it seems to have thrived on human alteration of the landscape and is a serious threat to the survival and longevity of many other species. If we thought of it solely under the ‘nature is best’ paradigm, we would dismiss the noisy miner as ‘doing what it should be.’ The truth is really more of a philosophical debate: is it natural to let the noisy miner outcompete many other natives, possibly resulting in their extinction? Or is it only because of human interference (and thus is our responsibility to fix) that the noisy miner is doing so well in the first place? It’s not a simple question to answer, although the latter seems to be incredibly important.

Noisy miner harassing currawong
An example of the aggressive behaviour of the noisy miner (top), swooping down on a pied currawong (bottom). Despite the size differences, noisy miners will frequently attempt to harass and scare off other larger birds. Image source: Bird Ecology Study Group website.

The amazing biodiversity of Australia is a badge of honour we should wear with patriotic pride. Conservation efforts of our endemic fauna are severely limited by a lack of funding and resources, and despite a general acceptance of the importance of diverse ecosystems we remain relatively ineffective at preserving it. Understanding and connecting with our native wildlife, whilst finding methods to control invasive species, is key to conserving our wonderful ecosystems.

Why we should always pander to diversity

Diversity in the natural world

‘Diversity’ is a term that gets used a lot these days, albeit usually in reference to social changes and structures. However, diversity is not merely a human construct and reflects an extremely important aspect of the natural world at a variety of levels. From the smallest genes to the biggest ecosystems, diversity is a trait that confers a massive range of benefits to individuals, populations, species and even the entire globe. Let’s dissect this diversity down at different scales and see how beneficial it can be.

Hierarchy of diversity
The generalised hierarchy at life, with diversity being an important component of each tier. At the smallest tier, genes underpin all life. The collection of genetic diversity is often summarised into a population (as a single cohesive genetic unit). Several populations can be pooled together into a single (usually) cohesive speciesDifferent species are then components of a larger community (which in turn are components of a broader ecosystem).

Genetic diversity

At the smallest scale in the hierarchy of genetic differentiation, we have the genes themselves. It is a well-established concept that having a diversity of genetic variants (alleles) within a population or species is critical to their future adaptation, evolution and persistance. This is because different alleles will have different benefits (or costs) depending on the environmental pressure that influences them; natural selection might favour one allele over another at one time, but a different one as the pressure changes. Having a higher number of alleles within the population or species means that there is a greater chance at least a few individuals will possess an adaptive gene with the changing environment (which we know can be quite rapid and very, very strong). The diversity serves as a ‘buffer’ against extinction; evolution by natural selection functions best when there are many options to choose from.

Without this diversity, species run the risk of having no adaptive genes at the ready to deal with a selective pressure. Either a new adaptive gene must mutate (or come about in other ways, such as through gene flow from another population or species) or the population/species will suffer and potentially go extinct. As strong selection causes the species to dwindle, it enters what is referred to as the ‘extinction vortex’. Without genetic diversity, they can’t adapt: thus, more individuals die off, causing more genetic diversity to be lost from the population. This pattern is a vicious cycle which can inevitably destroy species (without serious intervention).

Extinction vortex
A very dramatic representation of the extinction vortex.

For this reason, captive breeding programs aim to maintain as much of the genetic diversity of the original population as possible. This reduces the probability of entering a downward extinction spiral from inbreeding depression and helps to maintain populations into the future (both the captive one and the wild population when we reintroduce individuals into the wild).

“Population”  diversity

Because genetic diversity is critically important for species survival, we must also try to preserve the diversity of the entire gene pool of a species. This means conserving highly genetically differentiated populations within a species as a priority, as they may be the only ones that possess the necessary adaptive genes to save the rest of the species. This adaptive genetic variation can then be introduced into other populations in genetic rescue programs and serve as a means to semi-naturally allow the species to evolve. Evolutionarily-significant units (ESUs) are one measure of the invaluable nature of genetically unique populations.

Although many more traditional conservationists strongly believe that ESUs should be managed entirely independently of one another (to preserve their evolutionary ‘pedigree’ and prevent the risk of outbreeding depression), it has been suggested that the benefit of genetic rescue in many cases significantly outweighs this risk of outbreeding depression. For some species, this really is an act of rescue: they are at the edge of extinction, and if we do nothing we condemn them to die out.

Introducing genetic material across populations (or even species!) can generate new functional genes that allow the recipient species to adapt to selective pressures. This might sound very strange, and could be extremely rare, but examples of adaptive genetic material in one species originating from another species through hybridisation do exist in nature. For example, the black coat of wolves is a highly adaptive trait in some populations and is encoded for by the Melanocortin 1 receptor (Mc1r) gene. However, the specific mutation in Mc1r gene that generates the black coat colour actually first originated in domestic dogs; when wild wolves and domestic dogs interbred, this mutation was transferred into the wolf gene pool. Natural selection strongly favoured this new variant, and it very rapidly underwent strong positive selection. Thus, the adaptiveness of black wolves is thanks to a domestic dog mutation!

Species diversity

At a higher level of the hierarchy, the diversity of species within a particular community or ecosystem has been shown to be important for the health and stability of said community. Every species, however small or seemingly unimpressive, plays a role in the greater ecosystem balance, through interactions with other species (e.g. as predator, as prey, as competitor) and the abiotic environment. While some species are known to have very strong impacts on the immediate ecosystem (often dubbed ‘keystone species’, such as apex predators), all species have some influence on the world around them (we’re especially good at it).

Species interactions flowchart

The overall health and stability of an ecosystem, as well as the benefits it can provide to all living things (including humans) is largely determined by the diversity of species. For example, ‘habitat engineers’ are types of species that, by altering the physical environment around them (such as to build a home), directly provide new habitat for other species. They are a fundamental underpinning of many incredibly vibrant ecosystems; think of what a reef system would look like if there were no corals in it. There’d be no anemones growing colourfully; no fish to live in them; no sharks to feed on these non-existent fish. This is just one example of a complex ecosystem that truly relies on its inhabiting species to function.

Ecosystem jenga
Much like Jenga, taking out one block (a species) could cause the entire stack (the ecosystem) to collapse in on itself. Even if it stands up, however, the system will still be weaker without the full diversity to support it.

Protecting our diversity

Diversity is not just a social construct and is an important phenomenon in nature, at a variety of different levels. Preserving the full diversity of life, from genetic diversity within populations and species to full species diversity within ecosystems, is critical to maintaining healthy and robust natural systems. The more diversity we have at each level of this hierarchy, the greater robustness and security we will have in the future.

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.

Fantastic Genes and Where to Find Them

The genetics of adaptation

Adaptation and evolution by natural selection remains one of the most significant research questions in many disciplines of biology, and this is undoubtedly true for molecular ecology. While traditional evolutionary studies have been based on the physiological aspects of organisms and how this relates to their evolution, such as how these traits improve their fitness, the genetic component of adaptation is still somewhat elusive for many species and traits.

Hunting for adaptive genes in the genome

We’ve previously looked at the two main categories of genetic variation: neutral and adaptive. Although we’ve focused predominantly on the neutral components of the genome, and the types of questions about demographic history, geographic influences and the effect of genetic drift, they cannot tell us (directly) about the process of adaptation and natural selective changes in species. To look at this area, we’d have to focus on adaptive variation instead; that is, genes (or other related genetic markers) which directly influence the ability of a species to adapt and evolve. These are directly under natural selection, either positively (‘selected for’) or negatively (‘selected against’).

Given how complex organisms, the environment and genomes can be, it can be difficult to determine exactly what is a real (i.e. strong) selective pressure, how this is influenced by the physical characteristics of the organism (the ‘phenotype’) and which genes are fundamental to the process (the ‘genotype’). Even determining the relevant genes can be difficult; how do we find the needle-like adaptive genes in a genomic haystack?

Magnifying glass figure
If only it were this easy.

There’s a variety of different methods we can use to find adaptive genetic variation, each with particular drawbacks and strengths. Many of these are based on tests of the frequency of alleles, rather than on the exact genetic changes themselves; adaptation works more often by favouring one variant over another rather than completely removing the less-adaptive variant (this would be called ‘fixation’). So measuring the frequency of different alleles is a central component of many analyses.

FST outlier tests

One of the most classical examples is called an ‘FST outlier test’. This can be a bit complicated without understanding what FST is actually measures: in short terms, it’s a statistical measure of ‘population differentiation due to genetic structure’. The FST value of one particular population can determine how genetically similar it is to another. An FST value of 1 implies that the two populations are as genetically different as they could possibly be, whilst an FST value of 0 implies that they are genetically identical populations.

Generally, FST reflects neutral genetic structure: it gives a background of how, on average, different are two populations. However, if we know what the average amount of genetic differentiation should be for a neutral DNA marker, then we would predict that adaptive markers are significantly different. This is because a gene under selection should be more directly pushed towards or away from one variant (allele) than another, and much more strongly than the neutral variation would predict. Thus, the alleles that are way more or less frequent than the average pattern we might assume are under selection. This is the basis of the FST outlier test; by comparing two or more populations (using FST), and looking at the distribution of allele frequencies, we can pick out a few alleles that vary from the average pattern and suggest that they are under selection (i.e. are adaptive).

There are a few significant drawbacks for FST outlier tests. One of the most major ones is that genetic drift can also produce a large number of outliers; in a small population, for example, one allele might be fixed (has a frequency of 1, with no alternative allele in the population) simply because there is not enough diversity or population size to sustain more alleles. Even if this particular allele was extremely detrimental, it’d still appear to be favoured by natural selection just because of drift.

Drift leading to outliers diagram
An example of genetic drift leading to outliers, featuring our friends the cat population. Top row: Two cat populations, one small (left; n = 5) and one large (middle, n = 12) show little genetic differentiation between them (right; each triangle represents a single gene or locus; the ‘colour’ gene is marked in green). The average (‘neutral’) pattern of differentiation is shown by the dashed line. Much like in our original example, one cat in the small population is horrifically struck by lightning and dies (RIP again). Now when we compare the frequency of the alleles of the two populations (bottom), we see that (because a green cat died), the ‘colour’ locus has shifted away from the general trend (right) and is now an outlier. Thus, genetic drift in the ‘colour’ gene gives the illusion of a selective loci (even though natural selection didn’t cause the change, since colour does not relate to how likely a cat is to be struck by lightning).

Secondly, the cut-off for a ‘significant’ vs. ‘relatively different but possibly not under selection’ can be a bit arbitrary; some genes that are under weak selection can go undetected. Furthermore, recent studies have shown a growing appreciation for polygenic adaptation, where tiny changes in allele frequencies of many different genes combine together to cause strong evolutionary changes. For example, despite the clear heritable nature of height (tall people often have tall children), there is no clear ‘height’ gene: instead, it appears that hundreds of genes are potentially very minor height contributors.

Polygenic height figure final
In this example, we have one tall parent (top) who produces two offspring; one who is tall (left) and one who isn’t (right). In order to understand what genetic factors are contributing to their height differences, we compare their genetics (right; each dot represents a single locus). Although there aren’t any particular loci that look massively different between the two, the cumulative effect of tiny differences (the green triangles) together make one person taller than the other. There are no clear outliers, but many (poly) different genes (genic) acting together.

Genotype-environment associations

To overcome these biases, sometimes we might take a more methodological approach called ‘genotype-environment association’. This analysis differs in that we select what we think our selective pressures are: often environmental characteristics such as rainfall, temperature, habitat type or altitude. We then take two types of measures per individual organism: the genotype, through DNA sequencing, and the relevant environmental values for that organisms’ location. We repeat this over the full distribution of the species, taking a good number of samples per population and making sure we capture the full variation in the environment. Then we perform a correlation-type analysis, which seeks to see if there’s a connection or trend between any particular alleles and any environmental variables. The most relevant variables are often pulled out of the environmental dataset and focused on to reduce noise in the data.

The main benefit of GEA over FST outlier tests is that it’s unlikely to be as strongly influenced by genetic drift. Unless (coincidentally) populations are drifting at the same genes in the same pattern as the environment, the analysis is unlikely to falsely pick it up. However, it can still be confounded by neutral population structure; if one population randomly has a lot of unique alleles or variation, and also occurs in a somewhat unique environment, it can bias the correlation. Furthermore, GEA is limited by the accuracy and relevance of the environmental variables chosen; if we pick only a few, or miss the most important ones for the species, we won’t be able to detect a large number of very relevant (and likely very selective) genes. This is a universal problem in model-based approaches and not just limited to GEA analysis.

New spells to find adaptive genes?

It seems likely that with increasing datasets and better analytical platforms, many more types of analysis will be developed to delve deeper into the adaptive aspects of the genome. With whole-genome sequencing starting to become a reality for non-model species, better annotation of current genomes and a steadily increasing database of functional genes, the ability of researchers to investigate evolution and adaptation at the genomic level is also increasing.

Drifting or driving: directionality in evolution

How random is evolution?

Often, we like to think of evolution fairly anthropomorphically; as if natural selection actively decides what is, and what isn’t, best for the evolution of a species (or population). Of course, there’s not some explicit Evolution God who decrees how a species should evolve, and in reality, evolution reflects a more probabilistic system. Traits that give a species a better chance of reproducing or surviving, and can be inherited by the offspring, will over time become more and more dominant within the species; contrastingly, traits that do the opposite will be ‘weeded out’ of the gene pool as maladaptive organisms die off or are outcompeted by more ‘fit’ individuals. The fitness value of a trait can be determined from how much the frequency of that trait varies over time.

So, if natural selection is just probabilistic, does this mean evolution is totally random? Is it just that traits are selected based on what just happens to survive and reproduce in nature, or are there more direct mechanisms involved? Well, it turns out both processes are important to some degree. But to get into it, we have to explain the difference between genetic drift and natural selection (we’re assuming here that our particular trait is genetically determined).  

Allele frequency over time diagram
The (statistical) overview of natural selection. In this example, we have two different traits in a population; the blue and the red O. Our starting population is 20 individuals (N), with 10 of each trait (a 1:1 ratio, or 50% frequency of each). We’re going to assume that, because the blue is favoured by natural selection, it doubles in frequency each generation (i.e. one individual with the blue has two offspring with one blue each). The red is neither here nor there and is stable over time (one red O produces one red O in the next generation). So, going from Gen 1 to Gen 2, we have twice as many blue Xs (Nt) as we did previously, changing the overall frequency of the traits (highlighted in yellow). Because populations probably don’t exponentially increase every generation, we’ll cut it back down to our original total of 20, but at the same ratios (Np). Over time, we can see that the population gradually accumulates more blue Xs relative to red Os, and by Gen 5 the red is extinct. Thus, the blue X has evolved!

When we consider the genetic variation within a species to be our focal trait, we can tell that different parts of the genome might be more related with natural selection than others. This makes sense; some mutations in the genome will directly change a trait (like fur colour) which might have a selective benefit or detriment, while others might not change anything physically or change traits that are neither here-nor-there under natural selection (like nose shape in people, for example). We can distinguish between these two by talking about adaptive or neutral variation; adaptive variation has a direct link to natural selection whilst neutral variation is predominantly the product of genetic drift. Depending on our research questions, we might focus on one type of variation over the other, but both are important components of evolution as a whole.

Genetic drift

Genetic drift is considered the random, selectively ‘neutral’ changes in the frequencies of different traits (alleles) over time, due to completely random effects such as random mutations or random loss of alleles. This results in the neutral variation we can observe in the gene pool of the species. Changes in allele frequencies can happen due to entirely stochastic events. If, by chance, all of the individuals with the blue fur variant of a gene are struck by lightning and die, the blue fur allele would end up with a frequency of 0 i.e. go extinct. That’s not to say the blue fur ‘predisposed’ the individuals to be struck be lightning (we assume here, anyway), so it’s not like it was ‘targeted against’ by natural selection (see the bottom figure for this example).

Because neutral variation appears under a totally random, probabilistic model, the mathematical basis of it (such as the rate at which mutations appear) has been well documented and is the foundation of many of the statistical aspects of molecular ecology. Much of our ability to detect which genes are under selection is by seeing how much the frequencies of alleles of that gene vary from the neutral model: if one allele is way more frequent than you’d expect by random genetic drift, then you’d say that it’s likely being ‘pushed’ by something: natural selection.

Manhattan plot example
A Manhattan plot, which measures the level of genetic differentiation between two different groups across the genome. The x-axis shows the length of the genome, in this example colour-coded by the specific chromosome of the sequence, while the y-axis shows the level of differentiation between the two groups being studied. The dots represent certain spots (loci, singular locus) in the genome, with the level of differentiation (Fst) measured for that locus in one group vs that locus in the other group. The dotted line represents the ‘average differentiation’: i.e. how different you’d expect the two groups to be by chance. Anything about that line is significantly different between the two groups, either because of drift or natural selection. This plot has been slightly adapted from Axelsson et al. (2013), who were studying domestication in dogs by comparing the genetic architecture of wild wolves versus domestic dogs. In this example we can see that certain regions of the genome are clearly different between dogs and wolves (circled); when the authors looked at the genes within those blocks, they found that many were related to behavioural changes (nervous system), competitive breeding (sperm-egg recognition) and interestingly, starch digestion. This last category suggests that adaptation to an omnivorous diet (likely human food waste) was key in the domestication process.

Natural selection

Contrastingly to genetic drift, natural selection is when particular traits are directly favoured (or unfavoured) in the environmental context of the population; natural selection is very specific to both the actual trait and how the trait works. A trait is only selected for if it conveys some kind of fitness benefit to the individual; in evolutionary genetics terms, this means it allows the individual to have more offspring or to survive better (usually).

While this might be true for a trait in a certain environment, in another it might be irrelevant or even have the reverse effect. Let’s again consider white fur as our trait under selection. In an arctic environment, white fur might be selected for because it helps the animal to camouflage against the snow to avoid predators or catch prey (and therefore increase survivability). However, in a dense rainforest, white fur would stand out starkly against the shadowy greenery of the foliage and thus make the animal a target, making it more likely to be taken by a predator or avoided by prey (thus decreasing survivability). Thus, fitness is very context-specific.

Who wins? Drift or selection?

So, which is mightier, the pen (drift) or the sword (selection)? Well, it depends on a large number of different factors such as mutation rate, the importance of the trait under selection, and even the size of the population. This last one might seem a little different to the other two, but it’s critically important to which process governs the evolution of the species.

In very small populations, we expect genetic drift to be the stronger process. Natural selection is often comparatively weaker because small populations have less genetic variation for it to act upon; there are less choices for gene variants that might be more beneficial than others. In severe cases, many of the traits are probably very maladaptive, but there’s just no better variant to be selected for; look at the plethora of physiological problems in the cheetah for some examples.

Genetic drift, however, doesn’t really care if there’s “good” or “bad” variation, since it’s totally random. That said, it tends to be stronger in smaller populations because a small, random change in the number or frequency of alleles can have a huge effect on the overall gene pool. Let’s say you have 5 cats in your species; they’re nearly extinct, and probably have very low genetic diversity. If one cat suddenly dies, you’ve lost 20% of your species (and up to that percentage of your genetic variation). However, if you had 500 cats in your species, and one died, you’d lose only <0.2% of your genetic variation and the gene pool would barely even notice. The same applies to random mutations, or if one unlucky cat doesn’t get to breed because it can’t find a mate, or any other random, non-selective reason. One way we can think of this is as ‘random error’ with evolution; even a perfectly adapted organism might not pass on its genes if it is really unlucky. A bigger sample size (i.e. more individuals) means this will have less impact on the total dataset (i.e. the species), though.

Drift in small pops
The effect of genetic drift on small populations. In this example, we have two very similar populations of cats, each with three different alleles (black, blue and green) in similar frequencies across the populations. The major difference is the size of the population; the left is much smaller (5 cats) compared to the right (20 cats). If one cat randomly dies from a bolt of lightning (RIP), and assuming that the colour of the cat has no effect on the likelihood of being struck by lightning (i.e. is not under natural selection), then the outcome of this event is entirely due to genetic drift. In this case, the left population has lost 1/5th of its population size and 1/3rd of its total genetic diversity thanks to the death of the genetically unique blue cat (He will be missed) whereas the right population has only really lost 1/20th of its size and no changes in total diversity (it’ll recover).

Both genetic drift and natural selection are important components of evolution, and together shape the overall patterns of evolution for any given species on the planet. The two processes can even feed into one another; random mutations (drift) might become the genetic basis of new selective traits (natural selection) if the environment changes to suit the new variation. Therefore, to ignore one in favour of the other would fail to capture the full breadth of the processes which ultimately shape and determine the evolution of all species on Earth, and thus the formation of the diversity of life.

“Who Do You Think You Are?”: studying the evolutionary history of species

The constancy of evolution

Evolution is a constant, endless force which seeks to push and shape species based on the context of their environment: sometimes rapidly, sometimes much more gradually. Although we often think of discrete points of evolution (when one species becomes two, when a particular trait evolves), it is nevertheless a continual force that influences changes in species. These changes are often difficult to ‘unevolve’ and have a certain ‘evolutionary inertia’ to them; because of these factors, it’s often critical to understand how a history of evolution has generated the organisms we see today.

What do I mean when I say evolutionary history? Well, the term is fairly diverse and can relate to the evolution of particular traits or types of traits, or the genetic variation and changes related to these changes. The types of questions and points of interest of evolutionary history can depend at which end of the timescale we look at: recent evolutionary histories, and the genetics related to them, will tell us different information to very ancient evolutionary histories. Let’s hop into our symbolic DeLorean and take a look back in time, shall we?

Labelled_evolhistory
A timeslice of evolutionary history (a pseudo-phylogenetic tree, I guess?), going from more recent history (bottom left) to deeper history (top right). Each region denoted in the tree represents the generally area of focus for each of the following blog headings. 1: Recent evolutionary history might look at individual pedigrees, or comparing populations of a single species. 2: Slightly older comparisons might focus on how species have arisen, and the factors that drive this (part of ‘phylogeography’). 3: Deep history might focus on the origin of whole groups of organisms and a focus on the evolution of particular traits like venom or sociality.

Very recent evolutionary history: pedigrees and populations

While we might ordinarily consider ‘evolutionary history’ to refer to events that happened thousands or millions of years ago, it can still be informative to look at history just a few generations ago. This often involves looking at pedigrees, such as in breeding programs, and trying to see how very short term and rapid evolution may have occurred; this can even include investigating how a particular breeding program might accidentally be causing the species to evolve to adapt to captivity! Rarely does this get referred to as true evolutionary history, but it fits on the spectrum, so I’m going to count it. We might also look at how current populations are evolving differently to one another, to try and predict how they’ll evolve into the future (and thus determine which ones are most at risk, which ones have critically important genetic diversity, and the overall survivability of the total species). This is the basis of ‘evolutionarily significant units’ or ESUs which we previously discussed on The G-CAT.

Captivefishcomic
Maybe goldfish evolved 3 second memory to adapt to the sheer boringness of captivity? …I’m joking, of course: the memory thing is a myth and adaptation works over generations, not a lifetime.

A little further back: phylogeography and species

A little further back, we might start to look at how different populations have formed or changed in semi-recent history (usually looking at the effect of human impacts: we’re really good at screwing things up I’m sorry to say). This can include looking at how populations have (or have not) adapted to new pressures, how stable populations have been over time, or whether new populations are being ‘made’ by recent barriers. At this level of populations and some (or incipient) species, we can find the field of ‘phylogeography’, which involves the study of how historic climate and geography have shaped the evolution of species or caused new species to evolve.

Evolution of salinity
An example of trait-based phylogenetics, looking at the biogeographic patterns and evolution/migration to freshwater in perch-like fishes, by Chen et al. (2014). The phylogeny shows that a group of fishes adapted to freshwater environments (black) from a (likely) saltwater ancestor (white), with euryhaline tolerance evolving two separate times (grey).

One high profile example of phylogeographic studies is the ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis and debate for the origination of the modern human species. Although there has been no shortage of debate about the origin of modern humans, as well as the fate of our fellow Neanderthals and Denisovans, the ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis still appears to be the most supported scenario.

human phylogeo
A generalised diagram of the ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis of human migration, from Oppenheimer, 2012. 

Phylogeography is also component for determining and understanding ‘biodiversity hotspots’; that is, regions which have generated high levels of species diversity and contain many endemic species and populations, such as tropical hotspots or remote temperate regions. These are naturally of very high conservation value and contribute a huge amount to Earth’s biodiversity, ecological functions and potential for us to study evolution in action.

Deep, deep history: phylogenetics and the origin of species (groups)

Even further back, we start to delve into the more traditional concept of evolutionary history. We start to look at how species have formed; what factors caused them to become new species, how stable the new species are, and what are the genetic components underlying the change. This subfield of evolution is called ‘phylogenetics’, and relates to understanding how species or groups of species have evolved and are related to one another.

Sometimes, this includes trying to look at how particular diagnostic traits have evolved in a certain group, like venom within snakes or eusocial groups in bees. Phylogenetic methods are even used to try and predict which species of plants might create compounds which are medically valuable (like aspirin)! Similarly, we can try and predict how invasive a pest species may be based on their phylogenetic (how closely related the species are) and physiological traits in order to safeguard against groups of organisms that are likely to run rampant in new environments. It’s important to understand how and why these traits have evolved to get a good understanding of exactly how the diversity of life on Earth came about.

evolution of venom
An example of looking at trait evolution with phylogenetics, focusing on the evolution of venom in snakes, from Reyes-Velasco et al. (2014). The size of the boxes demonstrates the number of species in each group, with the colours reflecting the number of venomous (red) vs. non-venomous (grey) species. The red dot shows the likely origin of venom.

Phylogenetics also allows us to determine which species are the most ‘evolutionarily unique’; all the special little creatures of plant Earth which represent their own unique types of species, such as the tuatara or the platypus. Naturally, understanding exactly how precious and unique these species are suggests we should focus our conservation attention and particularly conserve them, since there’s nothing else in the world that even comes close!

Who cares what happened in the past right? Well, I do, and you should too! Evolution forms an important component of any conservation management plan, since we obviously want to make sure our species can survive into the future (i.e. adapt to new stressors). Trying to maintain the most ‘evolvable’ groups, particularly within breeding programs, can often be difficult when we have to balance inbreeding depression (not having enough genetic diversity) with outbreeding depression (obscuring good genetic diversity by adding bad genetic diversity into the gene pool). Often, we can best avoid these by identifying which populations are evolutionarily different to one another (see ESUs) and using that as a basis, since outbreeding vs. inbreeding depression can be very difficult to measure. This all goes back to the concept of ‘adaptive potential’ that we’ve discussed a few times before.

In any case, a keen understanding of the evolutionary trajectory of a species is a crucial component for conservation management and to figure out the processes and outcomes of evolution in the real world. Thus, evolutionary history remains a key area of research for both conservation and evolution-related studies.