A grant has been awarded to Dr. Martha Condon (Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, IA) and Dr. Susan Swensen (Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY) to test hypotheses about the evolution of insect-plant interactions. Plants and the insects that feed on them represent the majority of species on earth. Condon and Swensen address the general question: Why do certain insects eat only certain kinds of plants or certain parts of plants, and how does such specificity affect diversification? The project is designed to discover the factors that affect patterns of host use. To reveal and analyze those patterns, Condon and Swensen and their undergraduate students will collect and analyze ecological, morphological, and molecular data on newly discovered species of neotropical fruit flies and their host plants.
The project, which includes undergraduates as research partners, focuses on two economically important groups of organisms: the Tephritidae (the Mediterranean fruit fly family) and the Cucurbitaceae (the squash and gourd family). Inclusion of undergraduates in all aspects of the research contributes directly to science education. This project also contributes broadly to discovery and understanding of biological diversity, especially in the tropics. Understanding factors that contribute to diversification contributes directly to broad understanding of problems in medicine and agriculture: emergence of new disease causing organisms and pests is often related to changes in host use patterns. This study will test hypotheses about the ways in which changes in host use patterns are associated with diversification.