Evolution of Communication Systems:
Some of the big questions in animal communication include: Which signals do animals use and why? How are these signals produced and detected? And how is the evolution of these signals shaped by the senders, the intended and unintended receivers, and the physical environment?
These questions are addressed in our lab using fireflies (Lampyridae, Coleoptera) as a model system. We are generating molecular phylogenies of our study species and use these to study signal evolution (light signals or pheromones), and how environmental conditions (habitat characteristics, other signaling species and predators) are affecting the production of light signals. We are also working on sensor evolution (eyes and antennae for sensing light and pheromones), aposematic signaling, and the biogeography of fireflies.
Signal Evolution in fireflies (Lampyridae, Coleoptera)
Our lab is using molecular data to elucidate the phylogenetic relationships of Lampyrids (Coleoptera), with a special emphasis on the ~150 species present in North America. We are currently extending this work to fireflies worldwide. The firefly system is exceptionally well suited as a study system, because it allows us to connect signal phenotypes with the underlying genes and their molecular evolution. Our lab has extensive experience in firefly behavior, light emission measurements, sensor morphology, molecular methods and phylogenetics.
1. Species-level phylogenies of fireflies and signal evolution. In collaboration with Dave Hall (University of Georgia) we utilized firefly genomes and transcriptomes to generate a probeset (500 probes) for Anchored Hybrid Enrichment (AHE) as a basis for the worldwide firefly phylogeny. We are also using these data to generate robust species-level phylogenies. These phylogenies serve as our tools to study signal evolution (pheromones, flashes, glows) and associated sensor morphology in this group.
2. Worldwide phylogeny of fireflies and evolution of signal mode. In collaboration with Seth Bybee (Brigham Young University) and Marc Branham (University of Florida) we are utilizing our AHE probe set to generate a world-wide genus-level firefly phylogeny and study signal evolution (light signals, pheromones) and associated sensor morphology across this beetle family.
3. Signal production and reception. We are sequencing genes involved in light production (luciferase) and reception (opsins and screening pigment enzymes) to examine whether selection acts on signal production and reception in fireflies. In addition, we are doing fieldwork (ambient light measurements in different habitats and measurements of firefly light spectra) and gene expression studies to investigate light color evolution in fireflies.
4. Biogeography of fireflies. In collaboration with Jim Lloyd (University of Florida) we are investigating the biogeography of North American fireflies. The species-distributions of the ~150 North American (NA) firefly species differ widely in location and area. Our research aims to identify physical (elevation, precipitation and temperature, vegetation cover, etc.) and biological (congeners, other firefly genera, firefly predators, etc.) variables that explain the biogeography of NA fireflies.