Faculty, staff and students from EEB gathered on May 18, 2023 to celebrate the end of the semester, recognize award-winners, and honor retirees. Check out this YouTube video to see all of the winners, along with some photos from the celebration.
For decades, scientists have worked to understand the intricacies of biological diversity – from genetic and species diversity to ecological diversity.
As scientists began to understand the depths of diversity across the planet, they noticed an interesting pattern. The number of species increases drastically from the Poles to the Equator. This phenomenon, known as the latitudinal gradient of species diversity, has helped define the tropics as home to most of the world’s biodiversity. From plants and insects to birds, amphibians, and mammals, scientists estimate that tropical forests contain more than half the species on Earth.
These biologically rich areas are known as biodiversity hotspots. To qualify as a hotspot, a region must have at least 1,500 vascular plants species occurring nowhere else and have 30 percent or less of its original natural vegetation. In other words, biodiversity hotspots must be irreplaceable, but also threatened.
While scientists agree that most biological diversity originated in the tropics, the jury is still out on how tropical species diversity formed and how it is maintained. A new study published in Science addresses these long-standing questions.
In “The evolution of tropical biodiversity hotspots,” researchers argue that tropical species form faster in harsh, species-poor areas, but accumulate in climatically moderate areas to form hotspots of species diversity. Drawing on decades of expeditions and research in the tropics and the scientists’ own knowledge and sampling of tropical bird diversity, they assembled a large and complete phylogenomic dataset for a detailed investigation of tropical diversification.
“This is our magnum opus,” said Elizabeth Derryberry, associate professor in the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and a senior author of the study. “This research is the product of a decades-long international collaboration to produce a completely sampled evolutionary history of a massive tropical radiation – the 1,306 species of suboscine passerine birds.”
Roughly one in three Neotropical bird species is a suboscine, making it the predominant avian group in Neotropic terrestrial habitats – from the Andes snow line to the Amazon lowlands – and the perfect group to examine the origins of tropical biodiversity.
“The tropics are a natural laboratory for speciation research,” said Michael Harvey, recent EEB postdoc and lead author of the study. “Many high-profile studies over the years sought answers to fundamental questions concerning species formation and maintenance, but even the best of these studies sampled only a minority of the existing species within the clade in question.”
In addition, nearly all of the previous studies used highly incomplete data matrices and supertree analyses, which left results open to large estimation errors in downstream analysis, according to Derryberry.
For this study, Derryberry, Harvey, EEB Professor Brian O’Meara, and fellow researchers used a time-calibrated phylogenomic tree to provide information needed for estimating the dynamics of suboscine diversification across time, lineages, and geography. They also used the tree to test links between the dynamics and potential drivers of tropical diversity.
“We took no shortcuts in this study,” Derryberry said. “We leveraged this unparalleled sampling of tropical diversity to illustrate the tempo and geography of evolution in the tropics. It is the first study to demonstrate conclusively that tropical biodiversity hotspots are linked to climates that are both moderate and stable.”
The team discovered species-rich regions in the tropics contain diversity accumulated during a protracted evolutionary period and are not just a locus of young diversity. A key result of their study is that the best predictor of elevated speciation rates in New World suboscines is low species diversity. In other words, new species form at higher rates in areas containing relatively few species.
“The qualities that nurture diversity, lower extinction, and promote the gradual accumulation of species are, paradoxically, not the ones that support biodiversity hotspots,” Harvey said. “The hotspots are seeded by species born outside the hotspot in areas characterized by more extreme and less climatically stable climates.”
The team discovered that, overall, extreme environments limit species diversity, but increase opportunities for populations to evolve to become distinct species. Moderate climates, on the other hand, limit speciation, but provide more opportunities for species diversity to accumulate.
“Our study is the first to be able to address tropical diversification with a large, comprehensively sampled clade and will pave the way for future investigations of evolution in the world’s diversity hotspots,” Derryberry said.
The international collaboration for this study included researchers from Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela, as well as ornithologists from groups underrepresented in the sciences, include Latinx and women researchers.
“This paper marks not only a change in our understanding of evolution in the tropics, but also in acknowledgement and valuation of the diversity of culture, expertise, and perspective in the field of ornithology,” Derryberry said.
The US National Science Foundation, Brazilian Council for Scientific and Technological Development, and the São Paulo Research Foundation funded the study.
Congratulations to all the graduate students, undergraduate students, and staff who received awards at the EEB Awards Ceremony on May 1. To view more photos, please visit the EEB Facebook page. For more information about any of the awards below, please visit the Departmental Awards and Scholarships page.
2017 EEB Outstanding Master’s Thesis
Alix Pfennigwerth (Schweitzer Lab)
2017 EEB Jim Tanner Outstanding Dissertation
Michael Van Nuland (Schweitzer Lab)
2017 EEB Best Progress Toward Dissertation
Sam Borstein (O’Meara Lab)
2017 EEB Outstanding Publication by a Graduate Student
Rachel Wooliver (Schweitzer Lab)
2017 EEB Tom Hallam Appreciation Award
Angela Chuang (Riechert Lab)
2017 EEB Outstanding Outreach and Community Service by a Graduate Student
Alannie-Grace Grant (Kalisz Lab)
2017 Outstanding Undergraduate Poster Award
Sarah Ottinger (Classen Lab)
2017 EEB Outstanding Undergraduate Research
Hannah Anderson (Riechert Lab)
2017 EEB Undergraduate for Professional Promise
Katie Plant (Williams Lab)
2017 EEB Outstanding Outreach and Community Service by an Undergraduate Student
Heiler Meek (Schweitzer Lab)
2017 EEB Outstanding Administrative Service Award
Going Above and Beyond Award
Jess Welch (Simberloff & McCracken Labs)
Congratulations to the EEB grad students who won Graduate Student Senate awards this year. There are a few different categories:
Research: This award is presented to graduate students who have received national and/or international recognition in their fields and show professional promise in their areas of research and creative achievement.
- Sam Borstein (O’Meara Lab)
- Angela Chuang (Riechert Lab)
- Aaron Floden (Schilling Lab)
- Alanni-Grace Grant (Kalisz Lab)
- Chloe Lash (Kwit Lab)
- Brian Looney (Matheny Lab)
- Margaret Mamantov (Sheldon Lab)
- Austin Milt (PhD 2015, Armsworth Lab)
- Morgan Roche (Kalisz Lab)
- Michael Van Nuland (Schweitzer Lab)
- Rachel Wooliver (Schweitzer Lab)
Service: This award is presented to graduate students who are extraordinary campus leaders or participate in service learning and other community initiatives.
- Christine Dumoulin (Armsworth Lab)
Teaching: This award is given to graduate teaching assistants for extraordinary performance in teaching.
- Amanda Benoit (Kalisz Lab)
- Liam Mueller (Schweitzer Lab)
- Tyson Paulson (Fordyce Lab)
Alannie-Grace Grant (Kalisz Lab) and Sam Borstein (O’Meara Lab) have been awarded Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants from the National Science Foundation. Congratulations to you both!
Grant’s dissertation research is entitled, “Selection, niche breadth and plant mating system evolution: Are wider niche breadths of selfing species shaped by water limitation?”
Borstein’s dissertation research is called, “Morphological consequences of trophic evolution.”
EEB held its annual Awards Ceremony on May 2. Please click on each recipient’s name to read about each deserving awardee.
Graduate Student Awards:
- Outstanding Publication by a Graduate Student ($500) – Zach Marion (Fitzpatrick Lab)
- Sandy Echternacht Outstanding Teaching by a Graduate Student ($500) – Ian Ware (Bailey Lab)
- Outstanding Outreach & Community Service ($500) – Rachel Fovargue (Armsworth Lab)
- Outstanding Master’s Thesis ($500) – Nate Sutton (Armsworth Lab)
- Jim Tanner Outstanding Dissertation ($500) – Austin Milt (Armsworth Lab)
- Best Progress Towards Dissertation ($500) – Michael Van Nuland (Schweitzer Lab)
- Thomas G. Hallam Appreciation Award ($500) – Zach Marion (Fitzpatrick Lab)
Undergraduate Student Awards:
- Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award ($250) – Christian Yarber (O’Meara Lab)
- Outstanding Undergraduate Poster Award ($250) – Christian Yarber (O’Meara Lab)
- Undergraduate Award for Professional Promise ($250) – Patrick McKenzie (Armsworth Lab)
- Outstanding Undergraduate Award ($250) – Jacob Wessels (Kwit Lab)
Outstanding Publication by a Graduate Student – Zach Marion
Zach Marion, Jim Fordyce and Ben Fitzpatrick. 2015. Extending the Concept of Diversity Partitioning to Characterize Phenotypic Complexity. American Naturalist 186:348-361
Zach’s paper has already garnered substantial attention and provides a real methodological advancement for characterizing complex phenotypes. Zach’s coauthors emphasized that the paper was almost entirely his idea from beginning to end. The paper developed out of his experimental work on chemical defenses. Complex phenotypes, such as the cocktail of defensive compounds employed by plants and animals, are notoriously difficult to interpret in a concise manner. Zach developed an entirely novel approach for characterizing this within- and between-individual chemical complexity in terms of diversity, using mathematical techniques borrowed from community ecology. This approach to quantifying complexity provides a numeric value that is immediately interpretable in a biological framework. As part of that work, Zach also developed and released a software package hierDiversity that implements the approach. The software is freely available on the R CRAN repository. Zach plans to graduate in December, 2016.
Sandy Echternacht Outstanding Teaching by a Graduate Student – Ian Ware
Ian Ware has been a valued teaching assistant in our program for four years. He is always in demand as a GTA due to his diligence, skills and effective teaching style. He has taught Intro Biology, Ecology and was instructor of record for Ecosystem Ecology Lab in Fall 2014. He has been selected as head GTA for Ecology for the last three semesters because of his skills in organizing the labs, other GTAs, and for motivating all to excel in this field. Ian has been a fantastic mentor to over 12 undergraduates in field, greenhouse, and lab. He is great at connecting with students, using humor effectively to teach complicated concepts. He uses an array of inquiry-based teaching techniques in the field and lab and is fantastic at connecting classic ecological concepts with modern issues. He has also developed statistical modules in R, has been developing a list of classic ecology papers from the literature and has designed field experiments/modules to teach specific concepts in ecosystem ecology.
Outstanding Outreach & Community Service – Rachel Fovargue
Rachel Fovargue has consistently taken leadership roles, whether here at EEB, at UT, or in wider society through her conservation research and outreach. She has served as vice-president of GREBE, as graduate student representative on a faculty search committee, as a student representative on the Chancellor’s Sexual Misconduct Task Force, and as the Department’s grad student representative within the Senate. In addition to this campus leadership however, Rachel is also actively engaged with wider society. She actively engages with the end-user community for conservation research from nonprofits and public agencies, such as The Nature Conservancy. Also, the US Geological Survey regularly asks Rachel to work with teams of international conservation researchers as “coaches,” providing training sessions for conservation staff from relevant public agencies (Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and others) in how to apply techniques from modern decision theory to enhance their wildlife management practices. Rachel’s outreach work with USGS is at the very forefront of seeing concepts from quantitative biology through to real-world application.
Outstanding Master’s Thesis – Nate Sutton
Nate Sutton finished his Master’s degree in 2014. He published two first-author papers from his Master’s thesis. The first came out in Conservation Biology that year, and the second came out this year in Biological Conservation. His research has combined careful statistics, novel spatial optimization techniques and rich interdisciplinary data and analyses to answer pressing real-world questions. Most importantly, his work delivers crucially important recommendations to improve conservation practice. Nate went on to work at the Environmental Sciences division at Oak Ridge and now works as a Data Scientist at Jvion in Atlanta.
Jim Tanner Outstanding Dissertation – Austin Milt
Austin Milt graduated in August 2015. He published three first-author papers in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Environmental Management and Conservation Biology and has another in review for Ecological Economics. The key contribution of his work was the development of conservation planning tools to help shale gas energy companies reduce the aboveground ecological impact of energy development by optimizing locations of infrastructure. Another aspect of his dissertation involved producing a software package that is being used by multiple energy developers, conservation organizations and public agencies already. The scientific contribution of Austin’s work was extremely novel and timely, and he also painstakingly involved stakeholders throughout all sections of his thesis. While at UT, he was bringing in many tens of thousands of dollars in primary research grants on top of numerous fellowships. Austin is currently a post-doc at University of Wisconsin, Madison, working with Pete McIntyre.
Best Progress Towards Dissertation – Michael Van Nuland
Michael’s independently-developed dissertation project takes a novel approach to understanding the ecological and evolutionary interactions between soils and plants and how this may facilitate (or not) tree species range shifts with a changing climate. With a series of field and common garden studies, Michael found that soils impose multiple selection gradients on plant traits across the geographic range of Populus angustifolia. His work has been supported by an NSF GRFP and recently by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation award. He has been a model teaching assistant and has mentored multiple undergraduates in Jen Schweitzer’s lab. He has presented talks at ESA and British Ecological Society, and got best student talk at last year’s Soil Ecology meetings. Furthermore, he has published four first-author manuscripts during this time, and at least four more are in the works for a spring 2017 graduation.
Thomas G. Hallam Appreciation Award – Zach Marion
This award is perhaps the highest acclaim a grad student can get, because the nomination comes from the EEB graduate students. The award recognizes an individual for outstanding contributions towards improvement of the graduate experience. GREBE wrote a glowing nomination for Zach Marion. First of all they mentioned mentorship: Zach has played an informal mentorship role for many of the current graduate students, devoting countless hours helping grads with statistical problems, as well as with general graduate school advice. “We highly appreciate the time he has taken with so many of us.” Second, despite not holding a formal GREBE office title, Zach has consistently served GREBE by hosting events such as Recruitment Weekend (3 years running), serving as a graduate representative on a faculty search committee, and volunteering on many fronts to ensure graduate needs and opinions are heard. Finally, Zach’s involvement in teaching statistics courses has been exemplary. Many students have benefited from his efforts both within and outside of the Bayesian statistics and Biometry courses, for which he has taught or been GTA.
Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award – Christian Yarber
Outstanding Undergraduate Poster Award – Christian Yarber
Christian is a fourth year EEB student. He joined the O’Meara lab last year and has been an active participant in lab meetings and hackathons. Christian proposed a research project on the effect of paedomorphosis (retention of juvenile traits, such as gills) on salamander evolution. He used a script to extract information on traits from the Encyclopedia of Life, and verified this information for hundreds of species. He then took a phylogeny (Pyron et al. 2013), calibrated it to time, and matched the species there to the species for which he had trait data. He then used a recently published method (Beaulieu and O’Meara, 2015) to investigate how paedomorphosis correlated with diversification and turnover rates. His work was categorized by care throughout: he was not trying to rush through it, but dug into the methods and results to make sure the conclusions he was drawing were biologically sensible and justified. Christian will be lead author when the work is written up and submitted to Evolution.
Undergraduate Award for Professional Promise – Patrick McKenzie
“Patrick is as good as any undergraduate that I have encountered in the EEB major program to date. He is right up there with our very, very best,” said mentor Paul Armsworth. As a Haslam Scholar, a Baker Scholar and a National Merit scholar, Patrick appears routinely on the Dean’s list. He aced Dr. Armsworth’s Models in Biology class last year. He has actively pursued undergraduate research opportunities throughout his undergraduate time and in his summers. For example, this summer he is going to Harvard Forest for an REU; last summer, he volunteered as a research assistant on an ecology project in Scotland. He currently analyzing data on protected areas in the central and southern Appalachians and has been invited to present the results at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Asheville in April. Patrick is also very active in campus leadership through, for example, his leadership of UT’s Roosevelt Institute and his service on the University’s Undergraduate Research Advisory Council and Undergraduate Students’ Research Association.
Outstanding Undergraduate Award – Jacob Wessels
Jacob Wessels epitomizes the Outstanding Undergraduate. As a Chancellor’s Honors Program student, it is perhaps no surprise that Jacob is an excellent student. He was recently honored as a Top Collegiate Scholar in Arts & Sciences at the Chancellor’s Honors Banquet, and he successfully completed his EEB Honors thesis on the biology of invasive Mediterranean geckos in Tennessee. His achievements extend outside the classroom; he was an instrumental part of the Naturalist Club getting back on its feet a couple years ago. Though he has been known to catch an occasional butterfly on Naturalist Club outings, and even though he worked with geckos for his thesis, migratory birds seem to have captivated him most. Jacob is already in the midst of field technician duties this summer, recovering geolocators from golden-winged and blue-winged warblers. Jacob has made the most of his EEB degree; he is someone we should all be proud of, and someone whose work we should look forward to reading in the very near future.
EEB Outstanding Administrative Service Award 2016 – Janice Harper
Janice is the first face of the department, greeting everyone who enters the EEB office. She has the ability to interact well with faculty, students and, staff, has a consistently positive attitude, is dependable, and expresses a willingness to help. Janice’s motto is “I can work with anyone.” These attributes are shown during many of her duties for the department from coordinating departmental events and faculty functions (we call her the Party girl) to putting together faculty dossiers for tenure and promotion. Most importantly, Janice serves as the Graduate Secretary for our department’s 60+ graduate students. On a daily basis Janice handles numerous requests from these students, their mentors and committees, the Grad Affairs Committee and the Grad Recruiting Committee. We are grateful for her effort – Janice is highly deserving of this award.
Sam Borstein (O’Meara Lab) is a coauthor on a new article in Science called “A pharyngeal jaw evolutionary innovation facilitated extinction in Lake Victoria cichlids.”
This paper looks at how the pharyngeal jaw apparatus in cichlids, widely considered an evolutionary innovation allowing them to feed on a variety of prey items, doomed piscivorous cichlids when the Nile perch invaded Lake Victoria in the 1950’s. The results suggests that competition in conjunction with predation by the introduced Nile perch drove hundreds of endemic cichlid species to extinction.