Evolutionary biologist Frederic Lens (who works both here at Naturalis and at Leiden University) has received a €700,000 research grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). He received the scholarship together with Naturalis researcher Luis Valente and Groningen University researcher Rampal Etienne, and they will built a new theoretical model that describes the relationship between species' traits and speciation on islands.
Speciation by evolutionary processes
Some groups of organisms contain many hundreds of species, while others may consist of only a handful. "Why?", asks Frederic Lens. "What causes one group to evolve into many different species, and not the other one? That is one of the largest unsolved mysteries in biodiversity research." The researchers will develop open-access software that will allow evolutionary biologists to test which traits of organisms underlie this diversification, which is at the basis of the formation of new species.
Biologists have known since Darwin's research on the Galápagos islands that islands are ideal places to study evolutionary processes. Islands are, so to speak, evolutionary pressure-cookers. "We will focus on the Asteraceae group of plants which has produced the largest number of species on islands, and on the Canary Islands, one of the best-studied island groups in the world", Lens explains.
The project will give work to two PhD students, who will be working together closely. One will work in Groningen and build a new model for diversification. This model will be tested using results generated by the other PhD student, who will be working at Naturalis and will provide molecular
fylogenetic data, and datasets of of specific traits that might influence extinction and the formation of new species, such as wood formation, or traits of seeds and fruits. "The synergy and cooperation between the two will be crucial for a succesful result of the project", Lens says. "Studying the traits that influence the patterns of diversification is one of the hot topics in biodiversity research. We hope that our new model will lead to a better understanding of the current biodiversity on islands all over the world."