Although molecular techniques evolve, many evolutionary questions remain of interest. Now that we have entered the genomics era, some old standing questions might indeed be answered. For example, in ornithology, many have doubted the veracity of subspecies, and I have published numerous papers suggesting they are arbitrary divisions of clines and not the same as evolutionary taxa that are used in systematics, comparative biology, or conservation. But, do characters showing gradual variation over a large geographic area in fact represent local adaptation coupled with gene flow?
My group is interested in applying genomics techniques to attempt to determine the geographic pattern of adaptive variation across the genome. For instance, a host of co-distributed species exhibit similar patterns of geographic variation across the Baja peninsula. We are attempting to discern if there is an underlying genetic basis to these congruent patterns of morphological variation, which are not apparent in nuclear loci.
The addition of quantitative ecological techniques has further expanded the potential to investigate recent evolutionary history. For example, ecological niche modeling has now become a standard part of our phylogeographic molecular studies. By reconstructing species potential distributions at the Last Interglacial (120,000 ybp) and Last Glacial Maximum (21,000 ybp), it provides valuable perspective for interpreting genetic structures of modern species.
Several papers from our lab have used molecular systematics to provide perspective on the conservation of rare or endangered species. For example, we have undertaken analyses of mtDNA, nuclear DNA and ecological niches to show that the coastal population of the California gnatcatcher, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, is actually not an evolutionarily significant taxon.
As new techniques arise, I have also been interested in seeing that they are properly applied. In the early stages of a new technique, such as genomics, papers appear in which the authors, eager to embrace new technology, seem instead to have a technique in search of a question. I remain interested in comparisons of methods and matching them to appropriate questions, instead of just using them because we can.
I hope to advise students interested in these issues or a combination thereof. As Curator of Birds at the Bell Museum, I expect students to receive training in museum methods, which will qualify them not only for academic positions, but those in museums as well.
It is important for scientists to discuss their findings in a way that can be appreciated by the general public. I have written a book called The Three Minute Outdoorsman (U MN Press, 2014) that illustrates my interest in this aspect of scientific life.
winner of Brewster Medal, American Ornithologists' Union