My research program studies the ecological and evolutionary processes that underlie the origin, maintenance, and conservation of multiple levels of biological diversity, from genes to populations to ecosystems. My research ranges broadly from evolution, speciation, and biogeography to spatial ecology and conservation. Across these fields, I combine field observations and experiments with laboratory approaches to population and conservation genetics, and phylogenomics, using subterranean animals, including both vertebrates and invertebrates, and subterranean ecosystems as models. Most of the species I study are of conservation concern and in some cases federally or state endangered. The ever increasing risk of biodiversity loss from a plethora of threats, such as urbanization, groundwater pollution, and climate change, adds urgency to our need to understand the ecological and evolutionary responses and resiliency of subterranean biodiversity in the face of environmental change.
Caves and other subterranean habitats represent some of the most ecologically challenging environments on the planet. Organisms in these environments are well-suited to address key questions in evolutionary biology and ecology because of the relative simplicity of subterranean ecosystems. Many disparate groups have independently colonized caves and evolved to live in perpetual darkness (i.e., convergent evolution). The evolutionary histories of these cavernicoles cover varying timescales, with ecological shifts (from surface to subterranean) that can be directly linked to environmental factors (e.g., absence of light). Despite over 200 years of discovery and study, subterranean biodiversity remains poorly understood. Research on subterranean biodiversity has primarily focused on taxonomic diversity, biogeography, and the mechanisms behind subterranean adaptation (e.g., regressive evolution). While this work has yielded important advances in our understanding of subterranean biodiversity, significant knowledge gaps remain. For example, considerable biodiversity in the subterranean domain remains to be discovered and studied at all levels—from genetic diversity within populations to ecosystem diversity. The evolutionary relationships among lineages and populations of most groups are badly in need of clarification. The functional role of biodiversity in subterranean ecosystems and how it relates to other dimensions of biodiversity is inadequately studied, as are more complex interactions of subterranean ecosystems with surface land use practices and environmental perturbations.
I have a broad toolkit and a depth of expertise that encompasses traditional methods in population genetics, phylogenetics and ecology, as well as new techniques (e.g., genomics) applied across several taxonomic groups, including herpetology, ichthyology and invertebrate zoology. I find this integrative approach to building new knowledge across a range of disciplines is both exciting and necessary if we are to address fundamental questions in ecology, evolutionary biology and conservation biology