February 5, 2015

Jessica Pope
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator

Whitney N. Yarber, Information Specialist II

Biology Faculty, Students Present at International Conference

Pictured, from left to right are Dr. Theodore Uyeno, an assistant professor of biology specializing in functional morphology; Dr. Joshua S. Reece, an assistant professor of biology specializing in phylogenetics; Ashilee Thomas, a sophomore from Stone Mountain; Lauren Sparks-Hoskins, a sophomore from Pembroke; William Haney, a senior from Woodstock; Dr. Corey Anderson, an assistant professor of biology specializing in landscape ecology, population genetics, and spatial statistics; Erika Schumacher, a junior from Douglasville; and Arturo Sanchez, a December 2014 graduate from Tifton.

VALDOSTA – Three faculty members and seven students from Valdosta State University’s Department of Biology recently attended the 2015 International Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Dr. Joshua S. Reece, an assistant professor of biology specializing in phylogenetics, discussed how sea-level rise, climate change, and human infrastructure affect sea turtle nesting patterns.

Dr. Theodore Uyeno, an assistant professor of biology specializing in functional morphology, spoke in a special symposium on the biomechanics of soft-bodied organisms.

Dr. Corey Anderson, an assistant professor of biology specializing in landscape ecology, population genetics, and spatial statistics, presented a poster on the spatial distribution of Spanish moss.

Erika Schumacher, a junior from Douglasville, co-authored two posters — one with Arturo Sanchez, a December 2014 graduate from Tifton, and Reece, and another with William Haney, a senior from Woodstock, Reece, and Anderson. The first poster described a method the team developed to use genetics to identify the sex of the Florida grasshopper sparrow, a federally endangered species with males and females that look identical. This work will aid in the design of captive rearing programs for this species.

The second poster described the results of a genetic survey of the Florida grasshopper sparrow and showed that the mysterious and precipitous decline in this endangered species is not due to low genetic diversity and inbreeding.

“The Florida grasshopper sparrow is federally endangered,” said Reece. “It lives in a unique, treeless grassland habitat called the Florida Dry Prairie. It is a small, grassland bird. Much of its habitat has been lost by conversion to cattle pasture, and the only viable known populations are at two protected areas. Over the last several years, the already small populations of this species have experienced rapid declines, and we believe that fewer than 200 individuals remain. They are on a trajectory to reach extinction within the next three to five years.”

With funding from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Reece and his students investigated two issues surrounding this species.

“First, while the long-term decline of this species is likely due to habitat loss, the reasons for their recent decline are unknown, although inbreeding is a suspected cause due to their low numbers,” he explained. “We used microsatellite DNA markers, sometimes referred to as DNA fingerprinting, to investigate the genetic diversity of the remaining individuals and compared it to the genetic diversity of individuals sampled at two time periods over the last 100 years. Overall, despite more than 90 percent population reductions, genetic diversity has remained high. Thus, our research shows that their decline is not due to reduced genetic diversity, as was previously suspected. The cause of their decline remains a mystery, but science progresses by eliminating wrong hypotheses, and this research is an important step in identifying the reason or reasons for their decline.”

Lauren Sparks-Hoskins, a sophomore from Pembroke, and Reece presented a poster that examined how different color patterns evolved in tropical moray eels. She developed a crowd-source method, using VSU undergraduates, to identify unique color patterns and then examined evolutionary correlations between color patterns and the ecology of the different eel species. She found that different color patterns probably relate to the ability of morays to camouflage themselves, either to ambush prey or to avoid predation themselves.

Ashilee Thomas, a sophomore from Stone Mountain, and Reece presented a poster describing their research into how different species of eels evolved from ancestors that were entirely marine to descendant species that varied from marine to fresh water to brackish water to different types of migratory eels that spend portions of their lives in fresh water but breed in salt water. They found that the ability to move from marine to freshwater environments evolved independently several times, most likely through unique adaptations each time.

Yessi Castro, a senior from Buford, delivered an oral presentation on how a local species of crayfish, sampled from streams near the VSU campus, generates sound and under what conditions it makes various types of sound.

Brad Owens, a junior from West Palm Beach, Fla, attended the event in order to learn more about the comparative methods he is using to understand the evolution of hagfish and their unique morphological characteristics.

“The students did a fantastic job and represented VSU extremely well,” Reece said. “Most presenters at this meeting were faculty or graduate students, and our undergraduate students really held their own. I overheard several people during the poster sessions make comments such as, ‘Wow, you’re only an undergrad? That’s fantastic.’”

Contact the Department of Biology at (229) 333-5759 for more information.

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