Research

I am broadly interested in using phylogenetic, morphological, and functional approaches to understand the patterns and processes shaping the remarkable diversity life on this planet. Most of my research has focused on marine fishes, but I am excited to start branching out across the tree of life. I am currently involved in research and collaborations on mantis shrimp, seed-shooting plants, and small mammals.

Syngnathus leptorhynchus  (Bay pipefish) from Bodega Bay

Syngnathus leptorhynchus (Bay pipefish) from Bodega Bay

Prey capture in syngnathiform fishes: If you have ever seen a seahorse at an aquarium, you can appreciate that this fish is a rule breaker! Syngnathiformes, which include seahorses and their relatives (e.g., pipefish and trumpetfish) exhibit a suite of unusual and novel traits, including how they feed. All species in this large clade possess an elongated snout which they rapidly rotate during suction feeding (pivot feeding). Recent work in other labs has indicated that seahorses and pipefishes actually rotate their heads faster than is possible by direct muscle activity (power amplification). My work seeks to understand the evolution and significance of pivot feeding and power amplification in syngnathiform fishes. I take an highly integrative approach, combining biomechanics modeling, high-speed kinematics, and comparative methods to learn about how these novel traits function and evolve.

Evolution and mechanics of power-amplified movements: My work on feeding in syngnathiforms introduced me to power-amplification, which occurs when energy from muscle activation is temporarily stored in an elastic or deformable structure (e.g., tendon or cuticle) before it is released, resulting in extremely fast or forceful motions. Also called biological catapults, these mechanisms have evolved across the tree of life and allow organisms to increase performance during a diverse array of behaviors directly related to survival and fitness, such as prey capture and escape. For my postdoctoral research, I am exploring power-amplified mechanisms across the tree of life (e.g., ballistic seeds and trap-jaw ants) and developing new skillsets (e.g., materials testing, 3D printing). My current focus is on trap-jaw ants and snapping shrimp. In particular, I am interested in how these organisms may use the deformation of seemingly stiff structures to store energy.

infile.nex.con.trePhylogenomics and comparative methods: A well-resolved phylogeny is essential for asking macroevolutionary questions and an important component of my research is the construction of phylogenetic trees using cutting-edge methods. I recently published a phylogeny using >1340 ultraconserved elements (UCEs) and increased taxon sampling to resolve the problematic relationships among major syngnathiform clades.

 

Posterior view of the branchial arterial vasculature of the paddlefish, Polyodon spathula

Posterior view of the branchial arterial vasculature of the paddlefish, Polyodon spathula

I am also generally interested in character evolution, especially within fishes, but also across the tree of life. For instance, my undergraduate research in Dr. Amy R. McCune’s lab at Cornell University reevaluated the homology of lungs and gasbladders (an air-filled organ found in most fishes) using evidence from arterial vasculature in early-branching bony fishes. In our paper we find that vestigial pulmonary arteries might have been overlooked in previous descriptions of critical taxa (paddlefish and sturgeon), because these arteries have been co-opted for new functions in these fishes. Ultimately, my work helped support the homology of pulmonary arteries between lobe-finned fishes that breathe air using a lung and the ray-finned fish Amia which breathes using a gasbladder, which in turn lends support to the homology of lungs and swimbladders.

Check out my research in the news and popular science here and here and here (page 9)!

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