New postdoc, Sarah Foltz

Sarah Foltz, a recently minted VT Ph.D., has just joined as the McGlothlin lab’s first postdoc! Sarah did her dissertation work with Ignacio Moore, focusing on behavior and hormones in urban vs. rural birds. Here, she will be working on a project examining population variation in aggression and display behavior in brown anoles. She’ll also be teaching at Radford University. Welcome, Sarah!

Foltz_fence lizard
 Despite working on birds in the past, Sarah has already made friends with the lizards.

Evolution 2015 in Guarujá, Brazil

I recently visited Guarujá, Brazil, for Evolution 2015. This was another fantastic Evolution meeting, providing a chance to catch up with collaborators and old friends and meet new people, particularly the large group of excellent Brazilian evolutionary biologists in attendance. I gave a talk on some of the lab’s work on lizard voltage-gated sodium channel evolution.

Here are some of the many Twitter reactions to #Evol2015.

So long Eric

Today was Eric Wice’s last day as the McGlothlin Lab manager. It’s been great having him here, but he’s moving on to pursue a Ph.D. at Rice University. Eric has been instrumental in getting the lab going and keeping it running over the last two years. There’s no way I could have done it without him!

Eric’s lizard-catching skills are also legendary. In fact, he was so good at it that during our recent collecting trip to Andros, they placed a carving of his head in the lodge at Forfar Field Station.

Some people claim that’s Archie Forfar. Don’t believe them.

Good luck at Rice, Wice. Hope it’s nice.

Lizard collecting trip to Andros, The Bahamas

Eric and I recently returned from Forfar Field Station, where we collected from another population of brown anoles to add to our study on the genetics of sexual dimorphism. In contrast to San Salvador, an island with large males where we collected last year, Andros has relatively smaller males. Learning from our experience in San Salvador, we came equipped with brand new headlamps for night catching. However, we soon learned that the habitat on Andros, where trees are plentiful, did not lend itself to catching during the daytime. Unlike San Salvador, the lizards were very easy to spot and catch during the day, so we didn’t need the headlamps at all. (The Bahamian customs office, however, decided to impose a hefty duty on us!)

We had help from the field station’s director’s son, who could catch lizards by hand, and a local middle-school-aged boy who became very skilful with a lizard noose. One local woman helped us out immensely with her lizard-spotting skills, walking us around her yard and pointing out lizard after lizard that our anole-focused eyes had missed. Thanks to everyone who made this successful trip possible.

Forfar Field Station, our home for a week.

eric at sunrise
Eric at sunrise.

Anolis smaragdinus, the trunk-crown anole, looking aggressive and not at all green.

Anolis angusticeps, the twig anole, refusing to confine itself to a twig.

Photos by Eric Wice.

NSF grant on voltage-gated sodium channel evolution

The lab has received a 3-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study the evolution of voltage-gated sodium channels in reptiles (including birds). We are extremely grateful to the NSF for their support, and we’re looking forward to this exciting project! Below, I’ve pasted the project abstract from the NSF website. Stay tuned for project updates!

Parallel Evolution of a Gene Family in Two Vertebrate Radiations

The evolutionary paths available to a population of organisms may depend on its history. For example, certain genetic changes may be unlikely to occur unless other genetic changes are already in place. Tracing the evolutionary history of traits that involve many genetic changes is crucial for understanding how organisms meet new challenges imposed by the environment. This project will examine the evolution of a group of genes that allow predators to cope with toxins produced by their prey. By asking whether evolutionary changes tend to occur in a particular order in this group, this work will determine to what extent evolution is limited by the ancient history of a species. This work may also have practical applications; for example, understanding how predators evolve to cope with toxic prey may aid in the design of more effective pain medications or pesticides, many of which affect the same genes as prey toxins.

Understanding the evolution of complex traits involving many genes is a central challenge in evolutionary biology. Gene families, groups of similar genes that are the products of ancient gene duplications, provide a tractable model for the genetic basis of complex phenotypes, as they may both make similar contributions to the expression of a trait and respond to selection in similar ways. This project will combine analysis of published genomes and high-throughput sequencing to trace the evolutionary history of the voltage-gated sodium channel (Nav) gene family in snakes, lizards, and birds. Nav genes have evolved to allow consumption of highly toxic prey in several species of snakes, but the evolutionary processes allowing such repeated evolution are poorly understood. The Nav family will be sequenced in a large number of species to determine 1) whether ancient evolutionary changes in lizards predisposed the evolution of toxin resistance in snakes; 2) whether the Nav family evolves in a predictable manner in lineages of birds that consume toxic prey; and 3) what molecular mechanisms underlie observed evolutionary patterns in the gene family. The results of this work will help to disentangle the roles of historical contingency and predictability in molecular evolution.