Research and projects
My lab is interested in how things evolve. That is, how do differences in survivorship and reproduction lead to the vast array of patterns and behaviours that we see in nature? We approach this question primarily using mathematical and computational models. Models are useful because they allow us to study complex processes like evolution, which are hard to understand, by combining simpler processes like reproduction, mutation, and selection, which are easier to understand and can be represented in a mathematical way. The results help us to gain a mechanistic understanding of biological evolution, and offer predictions that we can test in vivo.
One of the advantages of mathematical modelling is that it has a low overhead. It is faster and cheaper to build a new mathematical model than it is to develop a new model system in the field or in the lab. As a result, research in my lab is not chained to a particular system or a particular question. I choose my research topics because they are interesting to me, and I encourage my students to do the same. Some of the broad topics we are currently interested in are:
How do species evolve in response to human activity, and how does this affect the survival of populations and the stability of ecosystems? Humans are changing the environment at unprecedented rates, and this will continue as our population and demand for resources grow. Understanding evolution in response to environmental change can help us to protect species, communities, and ecosystem services. My lab has studied how human activities influence macroevolutionary processes like speciation and extinction, and whether microevolution (i.e., adaptation) can protect populations and communities during environmental change. For example, we have shown that anthropogenic disturbances can disrupt speciation processes (Gilman and Behm 2011, Evolution), and that evolution can protect plant-pollinator mutualisms as global temperatures change (Gilman et al. 2012, Evolutionary Applications).
How and why does speciation occur? Speciation is an important source of biodiversity, and my lab aims to understand how speciation happens. We have used computational models to predict behavioural traits and mate choice systems that promote adaptive radiation (Gilman and Kozak 2015 Evolution). Working with collaborators, we have identified some of the traits we predicted in vivo in the rapidly speciating estrildid finch clade. Undergraduate students in my lab have used models to predict the conditions under which mate choice systems that promote speciation evolve (Chaffee et al. 2013 Evolution; Invernizzi and Gilman 2015 Current Zoology). We are now using experimental evolution in Drosophila to test these predictions.
How does environmental uncertainty affect the evolution of social behavior? My lab seeks to answer fundamental questions about how the environment contributes to the evolution of social behavior. We used models to predict that social learning is more likely to evolve in variable environments (Smolla et al. 2015 Proceedings B), and we have shown experimentally that Drosophila rely more heavily on public information when environments are variable. We have also used models to predict how the evolution of mate preferences depends on the environment (Gomez-Llano et al. 2016 Ecology and Evolution). We have recently begun testing this theory using humans as a model system.
Mathematical models allow us to propose explanations for patterns we have observed in nature, and they can make predictions about patterns we have not yet seen. However, predictions are not endpoints in biology. Rather, predictions must be tested in the field or in the lab. In my own lab, we have studied evolved behaviours in Drosophila as well as in the charismatic European jumping spider Saitis barbipes. With collaborators, we have tested theory in birds, fish, and wolf spiders. We are always looking for new collaborators and new systems to study!