Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Impossible realities: adaptive radiations and the suspension of disbelief

Adaptive radiations occur when a single ancestral species radiates into multiple descendent species as a result of adaptation to different environments or resources. Adaptive radiations provide perhaps the clearest evidence for the role of adaptation in shaping the diversity of life – think Darwin’s finches in Galapagos, Anolis lizards in the Carribean, figs and fig wasps, Hawaiian silverswords, and so on. The typical assumption of this model of evolution is that a number of empty “niches” exist and that organisms evolve and speciate to fill them, after which the radiation ceases. However, a number of alternative possibilities exist, such as the evolution of one species creating a brand new niche that favors the evolution of still more species – diversity begets diversity.

These possibilities have been explored using a variety of methods. One method is to try to figure out how many possible niches are out there – and how many of them are filled. That is, do the 13 or so species of Darwin’s finch correspond to the 13 different resources to which finches can possible adapt? Stated another way, is the fact that marine finches and cave finches don’t exist mean that these niches are not accessible to finches or that finches simply haven’t gotten there yet? 

Questions along these lines are often explored by investigators attempting to guesstimate what niches are possible for a given taxonomic group, thus enabling estimates of which niches have and have not been filled by a given adaptive radiation.  But how does one establish the range of possibilities? That is, how does one determine whether a hypothetical niche (marine finches) is or is not possible (i.e., accessible to the adaptive radiation)? A common route to this determination is to estimate the range of biomechanically possible morphologies and then determine how much of this range is filled by extant organisms. Unfilled morphospace then means the radiation hasn’t yet been completed – empty niches are still in waiting.

Sometimes I fear that these endeavors are doomed to failure – because it is usually impossible for us to determine what realistic empty niches are out there but have not yet been filled. This opinion first crystallized for me on my first trip to Africa and was brought back to mind by this week’s trip to sample guppies in Trinidad. The key realization for me was that many organisms that currently exist would probably not have been considered possible if they hadn’t already existed. The most obvious examples of these impossible realities are situations where one or a few species are highly divergent in morphology from other organisms – with giraffes first bringing the point home to me. Giraffes are so different from other organisms that I would bet that we would never imagine they could exist if they didn’t already. Ditto for hippos and bombadier beetles and aye-ayes and emperor penguins and mudskippers and cookie-cutter sharks and gastric brooding frogs and hydrothermal vent organisms and so on. In other cases, it is a whole group that is so bizarre that we wouldn’t believe them without the proof staring us in the face. Perhaps most striking, no one imagined dinosaurs – at least not in the depth and breadth of their majesty – before they had been revealed by fossils.  And I would place deep sea angler fishes in a similar place. These bizarre creatures suggest to me that many other morphologies, presumably suited for very divergent niches, still exist out there and have not been filled.

Beth and Felipe catching guppies.

The reason my trip to Trinidad brought this point back to mind was that a species exists there that is so bizarre as to challenge credulity, except of course for the fact that it actually exists. Imagine a bird that lives in caves (some other birds – cave swiftlets – also do so), feeds at night (some other birds – nightjars – also do so), has chicks that can be melted down to make oil, and echolocates (….). Yes, indeed, they echolocate. They use a series of clicks and screeches to help them navigate in pitch darkness both inside and outside of their caves. Bats do it, but birds? Bizarre. Unprecedented. Impossible? I had long heard about oilbirds and had even seen (mostly heard) them fly by while camping at night in remote rivers of the northern range of Trinidad – but never before in 13 years of visiting Trinidad had I seen them in their caves. But this was finally that year, with Felipe Perez leading me on a 2.5 hour hike up into the mountains to one of their (few) caves.

From my field notes: We reached the cave well after dark and were coaxed along the last few hundred meters by an ever growing crescendo of loud clicks and screeches. We wormed our way down a tiny creek in a small canyon and into a boulder field that descended into the mouth of the cave. The cave was quite large and extremely noisy and a bit smelly and wet, with water dripping from the cave roof. It was not a horizontal cave like you see in the movies but rather seemed to go about 45 degrees down and into the depths – presumably having been wrought by the creek flow over eons. Along the walls of the cave were ledges that were full of screaming oilbirds. [Wikipedia notes: In Trinidad it was sometimes called diablotin (French for "little devil"), presumably referring to its loud cries, which have been likened to those of tortured men.] They would either sit there and hurl imprecations or fly back and forth in and out of the cave opening or around inside the cave. It was quite spectacular and I wasted no time in getting out the camera. The photography conditions were quite difficult, however, as it was pitch black and the oilbirds were mostly far away – so Felipe would hold both headlamps pointing at a bird and I would use a telephoto with a big flash, which – after much trial and error – took some decent photos.

Echolocating oilbird.

Although oilbirds were the main reason I was reminded of the difficulty of identifying the possible in evolution – and although they fit the illustrative point of a specific bizarre species very different from all their relatives – I can’t help but also mention a very different scenario that tells the same story on a much grander scale. That is, an entire group that seems familiar to us only because of their existence – snakes. By this I mean that – if snakes didn’t exist – we might be hard pressed to imagine their existence, although some legless lizards get pretty close. But, in reality, I am particular motivated to mention snakes – and to think about their strangeness – because of a recent encounter in Trinidad.
Fer-de-lance: the snake we most commonly encounter in Trinidad.

From my field notes: I was processing fish at the table in Simla (the William Beebe Tropical Research Station) and had just finished a tank of fish. I picked up the tank to take it and empty it outside and was walking out the door when “thump” something heavy fell in the area between the open door and the door jamb. I looked quickly and saw it was a very big snake. Thankfully, I also instantly saw that it wasn’t a poisonous one – or at least not a poisonous one I was familiar with – so I just kind of backed off and called Felipe and Beth to come have a look. During this time, the snake, which turned out to be Pseustus sulphureus sulphureus, was slowly working its way up the door jam and higher toward the rafters of Simla. Felipe quite correctly pointed out that it would be good to not let it get too high above our reach or we would never get it – so I ran and got some butterfly nets to catch it. Felipe then engaged in a protracted dance with the snake to try to catch him in the nets, which he eventually did. I kibitzed and took photos and videos. After taking it outside, we let it go and it sort of hung around in some bushes nearby. We were confident its traumatic capture, handling, and release would convince it to depart.
Knock knock
Getting higher
Pest removal by Felipe.
Now that's a big snake (Pseustus sulphureus sulphureus)
About 15 minutes later, I was sitting having lunch on a couch facing the open door when, what should I see but the snake slowly slithering back inside the door. This time it was my turn to take a stick and pick the snake up and deposit it farther away from the house. But, by this time, I was starting to think that maybe it really wanted to be in the house and that it would not be deterred. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later, Felipe found it right beside the house again. This time, we moved it into the trees a bit away from the house, just the sort of habitat where it should like to be. It stayed there initially but I was getting more confident that it would be back – so I kept an eye on it. In fact, I went and got my camera to take some more photos – this time in its more natural environment. By the time I got back outside, I could see that it was starting to move out of the trees again toward the house. So I started filming.

As it got closer and closer, it changed direction and was heading right for me. Hmmm, this will be a good video, I thought. Then it came out of the tree not two feet in front of me – heading straight for me. A good video indeed! In fact, I could see that it was still heading toward the house, which was behind me, and the most direct route from where it was to the house was directly between my legs. I kept filming and, sure enough, it kept going right through my legs and toward the house. I eventually stopped filming because I could see it was about to enter the house through a small hole, so I grabbed its tail and it instantly whipped around and struck at me. Being at about waist height on some steps at that point, it definitely raised my adrenalin level.
You lookin' at me punk?

By this point, I was really enjoying the snake but also finding it quite distracting – I had fish to process after all. So at the end of this third encounter, I collected it with a pole and dropped it off a rather steep – if short – cliff lined with ivy. Although it clearly wouldn’t be injured, I figured it would at least get the idea that it might get injured if it stayed. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the snake or didn’t like it – quite the contrary – I just figured that it would be very distracting if we were having to keep our eyes open all the time while we were in the house for fear of stepping or sitting on it. Remember sitting on your house cat by accident, well this would take it to the next level.
Pseustus sulphureus sulphureus

After this most recent encounter, I went back to work processing guppies, but I kept looking behind me toward the door and windows because I was still thinking it might be back. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later, I could see it climbing the outside of the house and then entering the house along the edge of the vaulted rafters about 3.5 m up. Then it proceeded to move along this edge. Well, I thought, we can’t have it moving up into the attic or down into our rooms – that would take the distraction to a whole new level, so I set out to corral it in the same way Felipe had done previously. But now it was about a meter higher than before, so I had to stand on a desk or table and reach way above my head with the nets trying to get the snake into the net. This I could sort of do – but only the first half of the snake – try as I might I couldn’t pry the other half off the edge – and it became rather exciting when it would turn around and coil up as if to strike – while being 1 m above my head looking down at me.
As I didn’t succeed in capturing it, it turned around and went the other direction until it got to a new place where I could take another whack at it. Back and forth and back and forth we went in some bizarre pas de deux. Each time I tried to catch it, it would turn around and head the other direction. I would then sit down to process a few fish and, then, when it finally reached somewhere new where I could get at it, I would rush over, jump on the table (or desk) and try to corral it again. It eventually seemed to tire of this game and worked its way out of the house and onto the roof. That was it for that day but I suspect that the next visitor to Simla will have a similar adventure.

Another Trinidad oddity - the endemic Mannophryne trinitatis and his tadpoles.

So, from snakes to oilbirds to dinosaurs to hippos to giraffes, it seems to me that the human imagination and even calculation is incapable of postulating the possible endpoints in an adaptive radiation. We either circumscribe the possible morphospace much more than the actual reality, or we postulate things that really aren’t possible no matter what.  I am not sure where this leaves the study of adaptive radiation except perhaps to the idea that the best judge of what is possible is what already exists, with the caveat that this is almost surely an underestimate of what is actually possible. Adaptive radiations are indeed stranger than fiction.
Here are some more pictures from the Trinidad trip:
Here is my Trinidad post from last year:

Friday, July 12, 2013

The trick behind magic traits revealed!

In a recent paper in Ecology Letters, Sergey Gavrilets and I revealed the trick behind magic traits: they can evolve!

Magic traits have been visited already in this blog, so I will only briefly introduce them here. Essentially, they are traits that are involved in both divergent selection and mate choice. Their involvement in mate choice can help a population to diverge into separate, reproductively isolated populations in response to divergent selection, and so they can greatly facilitate the process of ecological speciation. Initially it was thought that magic traits should be rare, and for this reason, models using them were considered not to be general. However, a study found that, surprisingly, they are not rare after all. We tried to find out why.

The book where magic traits were defined

We built a large-scale individual-based model of ecological speciation. In our model, individuals can be viewed as an assemblage of many traits. Each trait can be used for discrimination during courtship. These traits can be related to morphology, color, behavior, etc., but they all fall into two categories: under divergent natural selection or neutral. Initially, females choose their mate randomly; subsequently, they can evolve a preference for any trait or combination of traits. We found that females evolve almost exclusively preferences for traits under divergent selection. This conclusion is robust to different ecological scenarios: niche invasion, adaptive radiation, and secondary contact.

This study suggests that we can expect to find magic traits in most cases of ecological speciation. Also, we can speculate that if we don't find magic traits, it might be because the effect size of the magic traits on survival or mate choice is small (i.e. they are “squib traits”), or because conditions changed such that the once-magic trait lost one of its functions (becoming “muggle traits”). Others speculate even more and interpret this as how women choose men they want to sleep with! That opens up all sorts of interesting pick-up line possibilities; further research is needed, however.

To get to the root of all this, go read the paper, and the F1000 recommendation.

Full reference of the paper:
Thibert-Plante, X. and Gavrilets, S. (2013). Evolution of mate choice and the so called magic traits in ecological speciation, Ecology Letters.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Hendry Vineyard Stickleback

In 2009-2010, I completed my sabbatical at the University of California in Davis. In reality, however, much of my time was spent on my family’s vineyard in Napa, California, where I lived for that year. (The vineyard and winery are owned by my uncle, George, and the vineyard manager is my brother, Mike.) Before arriving in California, I had pledged to myself that I would not start any new research projects but rather finish up some old ones and start a book on Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics. Here is the story of how serendipity – and perhaps a lot of fine wine – led me to break my vow.

Hendry Vineyard in winter (M. Hendry photo).

Nearly every day, my kids (Aspen – 7 years old – and Cedar – 4 years old) and I would go for a stroll around the vineyard, taking pictures, reminiscing about old family stories back to 1939 when my grandfather bought the property, or just looking at the many critters that lived on the vineyard. A few weeks into our stay, we found ourselves walking along the creek that flows through the property. In fact, the creek does not actually flow during the summer because it dries up except for a few spring-fed pools. As we came to one of these pools, the kids got all excited about the small fish they could see rushing around in what little water remained. “Catch the fish daddy, catch the fish.” Well, it is hard to resist the kids when they want to catch fish, and so we got some small nets and set to it. To my complete surprise, it turned out that the most numerous fish in these tiny pools were threespine stickleback.

Hendry Vineyard and Winery in autumn (M. Hendry photo).

Now I was hard pressed to keep to my vow to not start a new research project given that stickleback are one of my major research topics. So I spent the next few days drinking wine and mulling over various projects that I might do, such as a study of how periodic drying into isolated pools shapes the “metapopulation” structure of a creek stickleback population. However, I eventually convinced myself that this would be forcing a new project that really wasn’t that closely related to my research. So I decided to set it aside and return to writing.

A few weeks later, one of our walks took us past the two reservoirs on the property and I happened to look in and notice some small fish swimming around. I looked closer – stickleback again! Now fate just seemed too obvious to ignore – we were literally living between a reservoir and a creek, and my stickleback research focuses on lake and stream populations. Moreover, the two reservoirs had been created in the early 1970s by pumping water from the creek – and this would have been how the stickleback colonized the reservoirs. So not only was it a lake-stream stickleback pair in our backyard but it was also a potential “rapid” evolution scenario – one of my other major research interests. How could I not study it? In particular, we decided to test if adaptive divergence had occurred between reservoir and creek stickleback in the 35 or so years since the reservoirs were created – and whether any such divergence was parallel (in the same direction) as that between the long-established lake-stream pairs I had studied in British Columbia (for example, stream stickleback essentially always have deeper bodies and fewer gill rakers than do lake stickleback). If so, we would have a particularly striking demonstration of the power, speed, and predictability of natural selection.

The creek is shown in the white line and the reservoirs in the white circles.

Aspen and Cedar set and retrieved the minnow traps, Cedar “died” the stickleback, I photographed them, and Aspen labeled and preserved them. The next year back home in Montreal, we continued the family project on rainy days and in the dead of winter. Aspen set the morphometric landmarks on the computer, Cedar took the fish out of the vials, I measured and dissected the fish (thanks to my mom donating her dissecting microscope), and Aspen recorded the data in the computer and returned the stickleback to the vials. The next year it was back to the vineyard for a second round of sampling and then came another winter of fish processing. Now, with two years of data in hand, it was time for some stats and writing, a task I will admit did not play to the kids’ expertise. Just a few weeks ago, the paper resulting from our project was published in Evolutionary Ecology Research, and so we can now spill the beans on our discoveries.

Cedar out to catch some stickleback 2009.
Aspen checks the traps 2009.

Our first major finding was no noteworthy divergence between creek and reservoir stickleback. Although this was initially disappointing, it eventually became more exciting – because it represented a dramatic exception to many other lake-stream pairs and to the frequent evidence for rapid evolution in stickleback. In short, it would be of limited value to just confirm what we already know about stickleback. Instead, the story became about solving the riddle of what makes the Hendry Vineyard stickleback situation unique. One likely possibility for the lack of creek-reservoir divergence is gene flow that prevents the populations from evolving separately in response to different selection regimes. And gene flow indeed could be high given that water continues to be pumped each year from the creek into the reservoirs (although filters are present and the pumps are probably not healthy for stickleback, some must make it through). To gain some initial insight into this possibility, Ella Bowles and Sean Rogers at the University of Calgary screen some of our samples for genetic variation at DNA microsatellites and found very low divergence – indicating high gene flow. So the story turns from one of the power, speed, and predictability of natural selection to a demonstration of constraints and limits on divergence.

Our second major finding was that morphological variation in Hendry Vineyard stickleback – in both reservoirs and in the creek – was extremely high. This was true for overall body shape and even more dramatically so for mouth shape – a key aspect of stickleback adaptation. In fact, consultation with many stickleback biologists suggests that the variation at these sites was higher than that in any other known stickleback population. So this will be our next project – to understand the origin and fate of morphological variation, which might yield insight into how new traits can arise and spread within populations.

This week, we embarked on the first phase our new project during our annual visit to the vineyard. In reality, much of our time was spent building a new horse fence and exploring the Hendry wine library (thankfully a “living library” from which one periodically tests how the wines are ageing). However, we did have a full day to start the new project by collecting, photographing, and preserving 50 stickleback from one of the reservoirs. Over the next long, cold Montreal winter, we will use these fish to see if morphological variation (particularly the extremes of body and head shape) is associated with diet variation, which could be one possible reason for why such extreme morphological traits can arise and spread: that is, they are well suited for particular food types. Of course, many other questions remain, including whether these morphologies are genetically based or environmentally induced, a question we will address on my next sabbatical by setting up a stickleback breeding laboratory in a barn on the vineyard. Perhaps a stickleback library is not as good as a wine library but who says one can’t have both.


The paper:

Hendry, A.P., A.S. Hendry, and C.A. Hendry. 2013. Hendry vineyard stickleback: testing for contemporary lake-stream divergence. Evolutionary Ecology Research 15:343-359. PDF

An earlier post about the Hendry Vineyard: The Kumbaya Model and the Jake Reset Effect

Friday, July 5, 2013

Carnival of Evolution #61

Carnival of Evolution #61 is now up!  The theme is crustaceans.  Our contribution for the month is my post about academic dispersal.  Surf to the Carnival to see the crustacean-related spin that Teaching Evolution puts on it!

Following the crustacean theme, I'll leave you with this wonderful post about mantis shrimp by The Oatmeal.  If you haven't seen it, read it; I guarantee you will enjoy it.  Evolution is amazing!

Monday, July 1, 2013

What not to do (and what to do) at conferences

Post written by Kiyoko Gotanda and Ben Haller (equal contributors)

This year, the annual joint congress of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), and the Society for Systematic Biology (SSB) was held in gorgeous Snowbird, Utah. For those who don’t know, Snowbird and Salt Lake City was where the 2002 Winter Olympics was held, and Snowbird is at approximately 7,000 feet elevation. This proved amusing when running between buildings (see #2) as people tried to keep up conversations while gasping for air.

So, instead of just rambling on about all the great talks, we thought we’d take this opportunity to opine about what NOT to do at conferences, and then some counter-examples of what TO do at conferences. Please keep in mind that the what-not-to-do’s are not specific to Evolution 2013, but rather, are an amalgamation of things we’ve noticed over the years. The things TO do at a conference are from this year, and all in all, the conference was a rousing success.

 Snowbird, Utah! Not a bad setting for a conference...

Without further ado, what NOT to do at conferences

1) DON’T forget who is in the audience. Conferences are attended by everyone, and we mean EVERYONE. That’s undergraduates who are just learning about the big, bad academic world, hot-shot profs, graduate students suffering from imposter syndrome, post-docs trying to figure out if they want to stay in academia – and even more diverse folk. At Evolution 2013, there was an artist-in-residence who was making watercolor sketches of the talks she attended. Seriously EVERYONE is there! Gearing your talk just towards your immediate colleagues can be a bit frustrating for others if they aren’t part of that in-group; more importantly, it can deprive you of the cross-fertilization of ideas that comes from talking to people outside your specific field.

However, Richard Lenski gave the SSE Presidential Address, and he knew who was in his audience: EVERYONE! Lenski has been running a bacterial evolutionary experiment for over 25 years, and it has provided remarkable insights into many aspects of evolution. In this talk, most remarkably, it appears that fitness peaks are never really reached. The usual assumption is that if a fitness peak exists, a population will evolve toward that peak asymptotically, making an ever-closer approach to some optimum phenotype over time. But after 50,000 generations in Lenski’s experiment, the approach to the peak does not appear to follow a hyperbolic (i.e. asymptotic) trajectory; rather, it follows a power law, rising without an asymptotic limit (although at an ever-slower rate of increase), and the evidence strongly suggests that this will continue indefinitely. In other words, there IS NO OPTIMUM PHENOTYPE. There is no maximum fitness. This could have profound implications for the underpinnings of evolutionary theory. These results, which could have been shown in a system-specific, jargon-laden manner, were instead shown in a way that swept the whole audience off its feet. That’s how to do a talk!

An American Robin yelling in a jargon-laden manner. That's a no-no

2) DON’T pick talks that require you to run around like a chicken with its head cut off – easier said than done at these massive conferences! The Ecological Society of America is clocking in at close to 3K people each year (!) and Evolution is hitting 1.5-2K. With this many attendees, there have to be a bunch of concurrent sessions. Space limitation is limited, and so conferences are often held between several buildings. You can sprint (literally) between sessions –although this is a bit harder at 7000 feet elevation! – but you miss the questions, and even the beginnings of some talks, and you miss the continuity and flow that comes from a series of talks in a single well-organized session. But there’s another option! You can pick one session and enjoy all of the talks. We both saw complete sessions that impressed us with the quality of speakers and the science presented.

If we could fly, it would be easier to get around the conference!

For Kiyoko, this was one of the evolutionary ecology sessions. Using tropical frogs, Justin Touchon showed that phenotypic plasticity could provide the link between alternative phenotypic states – in this case, where frogs lay their eggs. Alex Badaeyev argued that network connectivity is the key to linking micro- and macro-evolution, and he demonstrated this using the diversification of avian plumage as his system. This was appropriate as his network relied on dietary requirements which are linked to plumage. Corlett Wood showed how we need to consider covariance between heritability and selection when using the breeder’s equation. In general, people estimate heritability and selection separately, but she argued that heritability and selection can vary due to the environment, which means that environmental factors could be causing heritability and selection to co-vary. The model looked at what happens when a covariance metric is included in the breeder’s equation, and the model showed covariance can strongly affect the variance, but not the mean. Katie McGhee demonstrated how paternal and maternal effects can interact to affect behaviour in sticklebacks, and Alison Egge spoke about cold tolerance and plasticity, and Oriol Lapiedra showed that arboreal feeding evolved from terrestrial feeding in birds on islands, and then the arboreal-feeding island species dispersed to the mainland. In other words, arboreal feeding in birds occurs on mainlands only by virtue of its evolution in island species! Just how cool is a session like that?

For Ben, it was a speciation session. Roman Yukilevitch showed a new method of testing whether speciation had occurred in sympatry or allopatry, and used his method to show that perhaps 5% of Drosophila species had resulted from sympatric speciation – a rather earth-shaking result, given the scepticism in some quarters that sympatric speciation is an important force in evolution. Göran Englund gave a very interesting talk about size-specific predation by pike driving sympatric divergence in whitefish. The evolutionary trajectory of the whitefish had a very strong scent of the “adaptive dynamics” perspective: very repeatably, they appeared to first converge on a branching point (of small body size), and then branch into two persistent ecomorphs. Disappointingly, to me, most of this divergence is apparently plasticity, not adaptive evolution (which is perhaps why it does not progress to full speciation, I would speculate); nevertheless, a fascinating talk. Bjørn Ostman (well-known as the moderator of the Carnival of Evolution) then gave a talk on resource specialization and the evolution of trade-offs; I quite enjoyed this, since I think trade-offs and the balance between generalists and specialists is an important and interesting area of theory. Liliana Lettieri finished with a talk on how female choice is a force for diversification in stickleback; this is an important area for empirical researchers to test, given the theoretical importance of magic traits and other mechanisms for assortative mating in producing divergence. At this point I confess that I switched sessions, but that’s because my session was open in the last slot. I went to a remarkable talk by Gideon Bradburd on separating the effects of geographic isolation (i.e. isolation-by-distance) and ecological isolation (i.e. selection against migrants and hybrids), involving a new method: BEDASSLEing your data. It looked quite powerful, and it was striking to me that after the talk ended, nobody got up and left; the whole audience stayed to hear Bradburd’s answers to questions. That’s a good talk. So, OK, switching sessions can be good; but maybe only when your “native” session is over!

3) DON’T spend all day everyday in sessions. If you spend all your time in sessions and don't allow time to explore your surrounding environment, you will burn-out mentally (and physically!). Thank goodness this wasn’t a problem at Evolution 2013. With Snowbird as a backdrop, there were many things to do besides go to presentations and posters. Kiyoko went on the birding trip to Antelope Island (in the Great Salt Lake), which was a rousing success. The bus was full of birders! It was led by Sarah Knutie, Sabrina McNew, Leo Gustaffson, all from the Clayton-Bush lab from the University of Utah. We had a wonderful tour of the local wildlife, including sightings of Say’s Phoebe (NOT a sage grouse), Avocets, California and Franklin Gulls, Western Meadowlarks, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, bison, and even two Burrowing Owls! Ben went wandering off photographing flowers in the mountains above Snowbird with some old friends, which also worked out quite nicely (see photos).

Antelope Island

Flowers Ben saw on his alpine hike in Snowbird

4) DON’T be a wallflower and not talk to people and network. Conferences can be intimidating, and meeting people to ask questions or find out more about their work can be a daunting task. The ASN has been trying to facilitate networking by holding mixers where professors and students can mingle and talk. Their session this year was a great success, and was well-attended by both grad students and by “scary professors” (as Keewi calls them). Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and sharing ideas and theories.

This year, we shared a condo with our good friends Jurri and Sarah, and the condo included a full kitchen and a dining-room table. This proved useful; we did a grocery store run and cooked all of our meals in our suite. We invited a bunch of people over for lunch or dinner and discussed science while enjoying yummy home-cooked food courtesy of Keewi (Ben’s wife) and Rebecca (Jurri’s wife). Collaborations were born, ideas were conceived, and everyone left with a very full tummy! Conference life doesn’t get much better than this. We plan to continue this tradition at future conferences; if you want to have a geeky science dinner with us, drop us a line!

There’s more we could write about what to do and what not to do when it comes to conferences, but it’s time to look at some pretty pictures from Evolution 2013 and Snowbird.

By the way, May 25–29, 2014, will be the first joint congress of the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution, the Society of Canadian Limnologists, and the Canadian Society of Zoology. It will be in Montreal, which is a wonderful city to visit. Information can be found here: . One month later, Evolution 2014 will be in Raleigh, NC. We’re planning on being at both, so we’ll see you there!

And, here's some more pretty pictures!

A 25-year quest for the Holy Grail of evolutionary biology

When I started my postdoc in 1998, I think it is safe to say that the Holy Grail (or maybe Rosetta Stone) for many evolutionary biologists w...