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Talks

Douglas Futuyma (Keynote Speaker)

Explaining Biodiversity: The Impending Synthesis

Thursday, October 11, 5:30 pm

Explaining biological diversity means, at the least, understanding why the number (richness) and the phenotypic variety (disparity) of species varies among clades, geographic regions, and biomes. Such understanding requires a synthesis of the concepts and data of evolutionary (and Earth) history, of evolutionary processes, and of ecology. Despite tensions among these several viewpoints, considerable progress toward synthesis has been made. This presentation will be concerned especially with contemporary currents in phylogenetic systematics and evolutionary genetics that contribute to this synthesis.

Lucinda McDade

The Treasures Within: Unanticipated Uses of Natural History Collections

Friday, October 12, 9:15, a.m.

Natural history specimens are real biological organisms that are preserved and stored in perpetuity, thus documenting their features together with data on the location and date of the collecting event. This combination of traits makes them absolutely essential for the uses to which biodiversity scientists put them (e.g., in documenting the morphological features and geographic ranges of taxa). But Lewis & Clark could have had no idea that their plant collections would be used—nearly 200 years later—to document the atmospheric conditions above the Great Plains in the earliest years of the 19th century using isotopes of carbon. Nor could the German plant collector Wilhelm Shaffner have foreseen that a plant he collected in Mexico in 1876 would provide DNA that would help to unravel the genealogy of the “Feathershank” genus Schoenocaulon (Melanthiaceae). E. A. McIlhenny (of Tabasco sauce fame) would have been very surprised to learn that specimens of Black Guillemots from the north slope of Alaska collected on expeditions that he led there in the late 1880s held clues in their feathers to the cause of the birds’ predicament 130 years later. The many collectors of California plants would never have been able to guess that their specimens, once databased and georeferenced, would be key to predicting the impact of climate change on the state’s highly endemic and threatened flora. These and other examples of the entirely unforeseen value of natural history specimens will be highlighted. It is certain that advancing knowledge and technology (e.g., faster and higher resolution tomographic [3D] imaging, next generation sequencing methods) will continue to build the value of existing—and newly collected—specimens.

J. P. Kociolek

New Insights into Diatom Biology and Phylogeny

Friday, October 12, 10 a.m.

Though microscopic in size, diatoms play important ecological roles in aquatic ecosystems, and help to drive global cycling of a variety of environmental variables.  Our understanding of diatom biology, and the evolutionary relationships of the group, was resolved to a great extent during the 20th and 21st centuries.  During this period the Academy of Natural Sciences was the focal point for studies on the taxonomy, systematics and ecology of freshwater diatoms.  While this has been the basis for our knowledge of the group, the universal nature of some aspects of diatom biology has been called into question in light of new and reconsidered data.  This talk pays homage to the important work on diatoms at the Academy of Natural Sciences, explores the important roles diatoms play in the biosphere, reviews some of the basic understanding of their biology, and highlights new discoveries about the phylogenetic relationships of diatoms.  New applications of diatoms, from potential renewable biofuels to a plethora of nanoscale possibilities suggest the 21st century will continue to see focus on this amazing group of organisms.

Daniel Otte

Patterns of Speciation in Orthoptera on Islands and Continents, and Contrasts between Ancient and Recent Faunas

Friday, October 12, 11 a.m.

The faunas of the Pacific and Caribbean islands are compared in relation to their respective ages and their proximity to faunal source areas. The faunal patterns of mountains, plains and forests within continents show similarities among continents, suggesting similar ecological pressures affecting speciation. Speciation in the western U.S. mountains is affected by the dispersal powers of the faunas as well as fluctuations in the sizes of habitat islands produced by advancing and retreating glaciers. The total morphological space occupied by ancient faunas, while much greater than in recent faunas, is not accompanied by a greater local diversity of species.

David Tilman

Biodiversity: Its Evolutionary Causes and Ecosystem Impacts

Friday, October 12, 11:45 a.m.

During the past 15 years, numerous field experiments have shown that biodiversity has unexpectedly strong effects on ecosystem productivity, stability and functioning. Synthesis of this work with studies of the evolutionary origins of biodiversity and with ecological analyses of the ways that so many species are able to coexist with each other suggests a simple unifying hypothesis: that the same interspecific tradeoffs that lead to speciation also cause species to coexist, and cause the recently discovered dependence of ecosystem functioning on biodiversity. This “Universal Tradeoff Hypothesis” suggests a surprisingly tight linkage among evolutionary, population and ecosystem processes. It also suggests that the loss of biodiversity, whether from species extinctions, community simplification, or loss of genetic variation within populations, has serious implications for global environmental sustainability.

Sandra Knapp

Natural History Collections as Models of Diversity

Friday, October 12, 2 p.m.

The 18th and 19th centuries were times when collections of natural history objects were being amassed by many institutions and individuals, with the object of documenting the treasures of colonies, new lands or of little known places overseas. This was true in Europe, and the great American collections were established on the same principles by the founding fathers of the United States. The need to document unknown lands is easy to understand, but given that we know a lot about the world around us today, is collecting and maintaining these specimens still necessary in today’s era of budgetary constraints? Why keep collections and why do institutions continue to add to them still? Specimens collected by our antecedents are the only windows onto the diversity of life on Earth in the past, but they are also crucial for our continued and sustainable future. I will discuss past motivations for collecting, some of the key expeditions and collections done by our predecessors in the light of today’s use of natural history collections as models for studying the natural world. Collections today can be thought of as physical databases of information about the occurrence of organisms in space and time, and as such become essential for modeling how life on Earth might change with changing climate and human impacts. Far from being dusty objects in creaking cupboards, today’s collections incorporate those from the past and are critical elements in both understanding diversity, both biological and geological, and in predicting its responses to change.

Wayne Maddison

Chance, Legacy, and the Pursuit of Spiders

Friday, October 12, 2:45 p.m.

Natural history museums hold an unfathomably vast store of untapped information on our planet’s biology, ever more irreplaceable as humans extinguish Nature's living memories. In 40 years of pursuing jumping spiders I've tried to add to this store, but I feel I’ve contributed only the barest outline of this remarkable group’s story. Jumping spiders are small predators with acute vision that lets them hunt like cats and communicate with one another through dances and ornaments. Their diversification into thousands of species on multiple continents provides examples of how biologists can resolve, from a group’s complex genetic history, evolution's blend of chance and predictability.

Shahid Naeem

The Natural History of Eden

Friday, October 12, 3:30 p.m.

When speaking publicly, I like to have us consider what the ecology of Eden would be since, after all, that is what we aspire to return to and that is what we imagine the perfect world would be. The point that emerges from this thought exercise is that Eden had no ecology, no evolution, and no environmental issues —it had no natural history. Natural history is an earthly discipline, one that must have emerged soon after we and all the creatures of Eden were cast out, at least as the story tells us. After centuries of research in the natural sciences, however, we have discovered what appeared to some to be a scary, chaotic realm of species fighting and clawing at one another, is actually a magnificent, rich, vibrant, and stable world within which humanity has thrived for hundreds of thousands of years. The goal ahead of us today is to use the knowledge we have garnered through our studies of biodiversity and how it governs the way our ecosystems function to provide us with all the services we enjoy, from breathable air to potable water to productive landscapes and fisheries. Earthly Eden is our home, filled with a wonderful array of plants, animals, and microorganisms who are our allies in making our world sustainable, now, and for many generations to come—if we chose to do so.

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