Toxic Geology: A Cause of Insect Endemism in Cyprus
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Dragonfly - typical carnivore.
Grasshopper - typical herbivore.
One type of habitat that will be examined.
Another type of landscape that will be examined.
Another type of landscape that will be examined.
Another type of landscape that will be examined.
Me in aquatic collecting mode.
About the project

What is this project about?

Imagine you, your family, and your neighbours took a trip and got stuck on an island with no way of escaping. The island turns out to be acceptable, with lots of shelter and plants for food, so it's no big deal - even if you didn't like it, you have no way of escape. Not having any geologists in your isolated group, you also don't realise that the soil all your food is growing on contains high levels of toxic heavy metals. After several tens/hundreds of generations, your descendants are no longer of the same species.

In a nutshell, the above story summarises how the unique endemic insects of Cyprus evolved. The heavy metal-rich soil, called a serpentine soil, comes from the geology of the Troodos Mountains, and is host to an array of endemic plants. Three of these plants are also found in other areas of the island with regular soils.

In this project, I will be investigating the insect communities associated with these plants, contrasting those growing on the serpentine soil with those growing on regular soils. This will be supplemented by analysis of heavy metal concentrations in the insects, to see whether they accumulate at each step of the food web.

Why this research matters

As an island, Cyprus is already a "test tube" for evolution. Coupled with the diversity of habitats on the island, this has led to a sizeable amount of endemic species. Studies on the origin of new species on islands come a dime a dozen. In this project, I want to introduce a new variable: geology, and its effect on mutation rates.

If positive results are obtained, then this will be fertile ground for more advanced research that will have implications for a very active debate in current evolutionary biology, the bridge between micro- and macroevolution: how changes in the genome lead to changes at the organismic level. The speeds at which the organismic-level changes happen can also be investigated, bringing insight into the tempo of evolution.

If the results are negative, then an alternative research program can be started to investigate the physiological mechanisms preventing the heavy metals from affecting the biology of the plants and insects.

On a more general note, the insects of Cyprus are very underresearched. A couple of groups have been taxonomically studied, but the bulk of the fauna remains unexplored. This is certainly true from an ecological point of view. Even without the specific research question, any systematic sampling is sure to collect species new to science and a wealth of new ecological data.

What your money can do

  1. I live in Nicosia, the capital in the center of the island. The sampling sites are near Larnaca (30 mins) and Limassol (45 mins) at the coast, and in the Troodos Mountains (30-60 mins). The fuel cost for traveling to the sampling sites multiple times will be paid for by your money; my car is very enonomical, so this will be a negligible part of the budget.
  2. The chemical analyses will be paid for by your money; most will be done by me in a university lab, but some will need the work of a professional chemist.
  3. While my collecting ethics demand that I only collect the bare minimum needed for research, a large amount of insects samples will nonetheless be generated in this research. These will have to be preserved in alcohol, or pinned, or on microscope slides. The materials necessary - from vials, to preservatives, to pins, to wood for insect boxes - will be bought from your money.
  4. The rest of the money will be spent on equipment and supplies for traps and sampling. It's an embarassing fact that I do my active sampling with a swimming pool net. The money will be used to buy textile suitable for a proper net; a UV lamp and a car battery to operate it on will be bought to enable night-time sampling; mesh and supports for a Malaise trap; chemicals suitable to use as baits.
  5. Excess money will be used to upgrade my photographic and stereoscope equipment. Potential purchases include a tripod; a macro lens to replace the extension tubes I currently use; a digital camera adapter for a stereoscope, to allow very high quality close-ups; a camera lucida for a stereoscope to help with drawing.

Notice that the latter three are general purchases, and they will benefit my other projects. In effect, your money will be supporting all my entomological research.

Potential discoveries

  • Evidence for heavy metal bioaccumulation up a food web, leading to faster mutation rates and, eventually, to speciation.
  • Unique, newly-documented plant-insect relations.
  • New species.

Biography

I studied geosciences at the University of Bonn, Germany. Having always been a biologist at heart, I specialised in palaeontology, while attending as many zoology, ecology, and evolution lectures as I could without getting kicked out for not being officially enrolled. My particular passion is systematics and phylogenetics (the tree of life and how to build it), and my animal group of choice is the arthropods (insects, crustaceans, spiders, milli- and centipedes...). Itching to get out of studying so I can finally do research, I moved back to my home country of Cyprus, knowing that it is an unresearched treasure chest of exciting discoveries.

I got my position as a scientific associate at Enalia Physis Environmental Research Center, an NGO that conducts ecological research and is involved in public environmental awareness, in September 2011. I'm the resident palaeontologist and arthropodologist, doing research on the amazingly complete marine fossil record of Cyprus, and on the insects and spiders of Cyprus.

This project meshes with my interest in the biogeography of the Eastern Mediterranean insects, including Turkey's and the relevant North African countries's faunas. I am interested in identifying the indigenous Cypriot insects - the ones that migrated here before humans came and destroyed the island's forests and spread synanthropic invaders. I eventually hope to be able to directly compare the endemic fauna of Cyprus with those of the Middle East, Northeast Africa and Turkey, in order to identify the sister species most closely related to the Cypriot species (and which hence share a last common ancestor), or even more spectacularly, identify the parent species from which the Cypriot endemics evolved from (if it hasn't gone extinct).

You can find more information about me and my interests on my blog and on my staff page.

Additional Links

My blog, Teaching Biology, where updates and further information will be posted.

Updates
 
Wednesday June 20, 2012

Discover Magazine has a post on the project: Petridish Spotlight: Fund This Project and Help Discover How Heavy Metals Affect Evolution. Besides the tagline, it's just the text from up there reformatted. Share it around, it's pretty prestigious!

 
Monday June 11, 2012

This post has the scientific background to the project, and an explanation of why Cyprus is such an exciting place to do evolutionary biology research: Cyprus as an Open Evolutionary Lab.

 
Saturday June 09, 2012

Here are some quick pictures taken during a small fieldtrip to the Troodos Mountains yesterday: Cypriot Bidoviersity Captured in 3 Minutes

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Access to blog with detailed anatomical pictures of collected fauna, used for identification, plus the above.
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Custom high-quality macro photograph of an insect of your choice, at resolution suitable for printing or use as a desktop wallpaper. Acknowledgement in any resultant publications. Plus all the above.
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