2015 – 2016 Global Change Fellow
Where are they now?
Sean is a Eberly Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Biology at Pennsylvania State University.
Statement of Purpose:
Anthropogenically-driven global change threatens the proper functioning of Earth’s ecosystems. A prerequisite for fostering well-functioning ecosystems is understanding what threatens them, forecasting how threats advance over spatial and temporal scales, and identifying impending problems. Solutions to these challenges rely, at least in part, on the ability of scientists, policy-makers, resource managers, and the public to take well-informed and coordinated action against threats to biodiversity and ecosystem function. To address these challenges I have developed a research program that focuses on understanding how human-mediated environmental change drives the evolution of wild populations, sometimes in unanticipated ways. This multidisciplinary program integrates components of diverse fields including evolutionary biology, ecosystem ecology, community ecology, theoretical biology, and conservation biology. The SECSC Global Change Fellowship Program provides a valuable opportunity to further integrate these components with additional skills necessary to effectively implement the knowledge research produces.
Description of Research:
While the application of evolutionary theory to conservation biology has a long history, it not taken a focal role in natural resource management. One objective of my dissertation research is to fill this gap by providing clear evidence for the importance of including evolutionary processes in management decisions. Specifically, I use a model system of human-altered coastal wetlands to investigate widespread, and rapid phenotypic divergence in a group of ecologically-important fishes, Bahamian mosquitofish (Gambusia spp.). Thus far, this research has yielded several new insights important for understanding global change consequences. First, anthropogenic change can destabilize basic evolutionary processes such as sexual selection. Second, novel trophic interactions in urban ecosystems are highly integrated and ecologically stable. Third, capturing the predictably of evolutionary change required for evolutionarily-informed conservation requires studies of broad taxonomic, ecological, and geographic scope. This research, and that of many others, shows that many wild populations are evolving due to the ecological challenges of a human-dominated world. Therefore, natural resource management will increasingly rely on understanding whether such changes are rapid enough, and of a trajectory and magnitude sufficient to sustain populations, species, and ecosystems in the face of global change. The benefits of applying evolutionary principles to understand the dynamics of natural systems have never been clearer. This research falls under SP Science Themes 4: Ecological Research and Modeling, and 5: Impacts of Climate Change on Coastal and Nearshore Marine Environments.