The tropical regions of the world house a disproportionately high amount of the world's biodiversity. Though the reasons for this are not well understood, a number of hypotheses have sought to explain these high rates of speciation; most focusing on the well-studied biota of the Neotropics. The goal of this research project is to better understand biotic diversification in the tropics by focusing on Madagascar, a natural laboratory for such work. Due to its isolation, Madagascar is well suited to explore how organisms diverge and persist in fragmented habitats without the confounding influence of migration to or from adjacent areas. The researchers will study speciation of ants, which as a group, are younger than the island itself. Thus all 700+ species known from Madagascar are derived from transoceanic colonists, whose speciation and diversification on the island has left a genetic signature of these processes in their descendants. By employing molecular data and genomic methods the scientists will explore the history and the factors influencing the diversification of Malagasy ants.
This high diversity in Madagascar, the comprehensive sampling of the endemic ants, and the availability of newly developed, low-cost DNA sequencing technologies will allow this study to test recent advances in methods of ecological niche modeling, delimiting species, and inferring relationships. These data also will allow rigorous testing of existing hypotheses of biotic diversification and examination of whether temporal and ecological commonalities exist in patterns observed among taxa. This will be one of the broadest assessments of tropical diversification to date and will greatly enhance understanding of 1) the biological history of Madagascar, 2) the role of landscape features and environmental change on biological diversification, and 3) the extent to which modeling methods can contribute to the delimitation of distinct species. The project will train graduate and undergraduate students.