I had a great kick off day for Evolution 2011. I started out in two sessions on plant diversification. Two talks in particular stood out. In the first session, Alex Papadopulos talked about sympatric speciation on Lord Howe Island. Lord Howe is a lone island in the pacific 600 km east of Australia. He's found endemic sister species of flowering plants that must have speciated on the island itself. Granted, he estimates the frequency of Lord Howe species that originated by sympatric speciation to be only 4.5-8%, but still, I'm fascinated to see any example of sympatric speciation. I should add for those in the know that the examples he discussed were not simply polyploids (the most frequent and presumably simplest form of sympatric speciation). For those not in the know, sympatric speciation happens when two populations that share a population range diverge into two species. The question is how this can happen, when presumably the two populations could interbreed and thereby pass incipient species differences back and forth. It's thought that most speciation is allopatric, where some kind of geographic barrier prevents interbreeding of two diverging populations while they are in the process of becoming new species.
In the next session, I thought Michael Donoghue's talk on fruit color was really fascinating. The question he's trying to understand is why there are so many different fruit colors. He looked at fruit color frequency in South Carolina vs. Maine in the US, and in Kyushu vs. Hokkaido in Japan. He found a very interesting pattern, but since this is very preliminary research, I don't want to spoil the surprise, so I won't spill the beans (as it were).
Next, I popped in for Ken Miller's talk "So simple a beginning - why evolution matters in America today," which was about what I expected from Ken Miller talking about why creationism is a terrible threat. I thought it was kind of funny when he got gasps from the audience after informing them of AIG's new Ark park project. It was nice to hear his presentation, though, since I can see why he's so concerned about the situation. If you really think that creationism is anti-science or anti-rational, then yeah, I can see that that would threaten America's prominence in the world of science and innovation. I certainly share his concern over the persistence of many really bad creationist arguments.
I spent the afternoon in a session on reinforcement before ending my day in the invert diversification session. The highlight for me was hearing about Robin Hopkins's research into reinforcement and character displacement in the Phlox drummondii/cuspidata system in Texas. The idea is pretty simple. Sometimes in the wild, we observe that two species differ from each other more when they occur in the same area (sympatric) than in populations that are geographically isolated (allopatric). Say you have two wide-ranging species of flowers that share a partial overlap in their range where they occur together. Normally, the flowers are blue, but where they occur in the same area, one species has dark red flowers. That's called character displacement, and it's exactly what you find in the case of Phlox drummondii. Where P. drummondii occurs by itself, it grows a blue flower, but where it grows next to P. cuspidata, the flowers are dark red. In a nutshell, Hopkins found that Phlox pollinators treat the two color flowers differently, thereby reducing the occurrence of maladaptive hybridization. It was a terrific study, and I'm not at all surprised to see that the editors of Nature agree.
Two final notes: If you drop by the Wiley-Blackwell booth, you can pick up a copy of the March/April issue of Journal of Evolutionary Biology, which contains a paper called "Using creation science to demonstrate evolution? Senter's strategy revisited." Check it out if you can.
Finally, I see that Jerry Coyne seemed surprised to find a prayer card on his bed when he checked into his hotel room at the conference center. For those who don't recognize his name, he's a prominent evolutionary biologist, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and an outspoken atheist. I have to admit that I was a little surprised to see that too, even though it was a pretty "non-denominational" prayer. But I hope he's not surprised to learn that some Christians might actually pray for him. That's part of what it is to be Christian: to pray for others. I would hope that creationists everywhere would be praying for him and for all the folks at this conference. Heaven knows we need it.
Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.