Advisor: Vicky Funk
Department Affiliations: Botany
The particular range of niches which daisies have managed to occupy within the more extreme climes of the continental U.S. find themselves the subject of a Big Data survey known as Eco-Evo-Geo (Ecology, Evolution and Geology). Funded by the Powell Fellowship from the United States Geological Survey, the project pulls together individuals from a host of research bodies, including the Smithsonian, the National Science Foundation, the USGS, The US Department of Agriculture and CSIRO—the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the government scientific body in Australia.
At the center of this web stands Bort Edwards, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Museum of Natural History.
“I’m the spider in the middle pulling everyone together,” said Edwards. “The different organizations [in Eco-Evo-Geo] provide the data sources for the project, and I’m responsible for consolidating the data.”
Edwards and his advisor, Vicki Funk, a senior research botanist and curator at NMNH, met with the group in Colorado to assemble an outline of the data survey needed to complete the project. From
there, Edwards and Funk spent two weeks traveling through Nevada, Arizona and California collecting daisies.
“We’re interested in the role that the environment plays in diversification and speciation, specifically in extreme climates,” said Edwards. “It’s known that if a particular organism is able to adapt to an extreme environment, then an entire suite of niches is opened up into which that organism can expand.”
According to Edwards, desert environments like those found in the southwest US and Mexico are characterized by high aridity and soil salinity, which often prevents water from leeching out. Because of this excessive dryness, most plants are unable to grow there, leaving most unoccupied space available for those that can withstand the conditions—including, among others, daisies.
The group draws phylogenetic data for their different species of study from NCBI’s ever-ubiquitous GenBank. Spacial data, including records of localities where different species are observed, come from the various government organizations involved. The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) provides yet another level of data: records of all organisms collected by museum, herbaria and similar organizations. Still more information on geochemical soil characteristics—such as ion levels or electrical conductivity—is provided by the USDA and USGS.
“The plan is to pick another plant group once we’ve got the pipeline down and push through the data,” said Edwards. “Plants lend themselves to a relationship with the soil in a way that not many animals would.”
That particular relationship influences the way in which plants evolve and differentiate into species over time. Edwards and his team hypothesize that if an organism adapts to one or more limiting factors in their environment—say, some chemical property of the soil—then that organism may expand into the full range of niches that bear that characteristic.