The reason I ultimately decided to make the trip to New Zealand was the specific research program I applied for. I find this work fascinating, and hope that you will too.
I am enrolled in a 3 year PhD program with Dr. Steve Higgins at the University in Otago and Dr. William Lee with Landcare Research. Steve and my program are housed in the Botany department, although his research focuses on ecological modeling. Bill is an experimental and theoretical ecologist, and Landcare is a national government agency that works on conservation biology issues.
My research focuses on evolutionary ecology, or using evolutionary theory to explain ecological phenomena. The study of ecology has two questions at its core: (1) why are there so many species? (2) why do species occur where/when they do, and how? Ultimately ecology seeks to gain insights to the underlying mechanisms of patterns we observe in nature. I will implement theory, experiments, and models to address these questions in an evolutionary context.
Although global diversity is great, it is not evenly distributed. Some groups have diversified greatly, while others have remained sparse. Furthermore, some lineages that are poorly diversified in mainland systems are highly so in nearby islands. Such is the case in New Zealand, and the primary question of my research. We hypothesize that groups of plants that colonized earlier geologically will have greater diversification due to radial divergence and niche preemption, or when they arrived they were able to take advantage of many novel habitats and speciate to utilize them. Later arriving species then are forced to fit into these communities, and are unable to diversify into new niches because they are already occupied. Earlier colonizers should also have competitive advantages, which would make them dominant and most abundant in community types.
Genetic data with phylogenetic modeling techniques will be implemented to construct evolutionary trees, as well as estimate colonization time. Experiments will be used to quantify competitive ability within and between lineages. After these data have been collected patterns of diversification will be modeled.
Hopefully you agree with me that understanding the underlying mechanisms speciation are interesting. I’ll provide updates as research progress is made.