A pinboard by
Cara Van Der Wal

PhD Candidate, University of Sydney


My research focusses on resolving phylogenetic relationships and using these to understand evolution

My research involves using molecular methods to determine how species are related (phylogenetics), when they evolved (molecular dating) and how different populations a species interact (population genetics). To answer these questions I use DNA sequence data. Due to my background and passion for marine biology, my study organisms are crustaceans. I am specifically interested in the phylogenetic relationships within mantis shrimps and the population genetics of freshwater crayfish. My research is significant as crustaceans play important ecological, biological and economic roles. Environmentally, crustaceans are important in both marine and freshwater ecosystems acting as ecosystem modifiers or engineers, biological indicators of pollution and being integral members of the food chain. Crustaceans are also economically valuable acting as a major fisheries resource in many countries. Phylogenetics and taxonomy are fundamental to managing biodiversity by providing the basis for their inventory and critical information for conservation and management strategies. Within the scientific realm there is a taxonomic bias favouring the study of birds and mammals. Unfortunately, as this bias suggests invertebrates such as crayfish are generally overlooked in conservation considerations. Overlooking these integral species in molecular studies has caused substantial knowledge gaps. For example, crayfish are ranked within the five most endangered animal groups globally, with 25% of species too poorly understood to make informed conservation assessments. My research aims to fill these knowledge gaps, providing information on population sizes, genetic diversity, taxonomy and evolution. This research will make use of extensive museum collections, providing a complete group of records from recent years. My phylogenetic studies will determine if changes to the current taxonomy of Stomatopoda is required, and how the remarkably specialised group evolved through time using fossil information. Furthermore, population studies will assess the effectiveness of current management plans by determining population connectivity and genetic diversity within freshwater crayfish. This research is expected to result in the identification of new species, which will have acute ramifications for current and future conservation recommendations. The results from these studies will aid both scientific and governmental bodies to ensure crustacean species are conserved and protected into the future.


Resolving arthropod phylogeny: exploring phylogenetic signal within 41 kb of protein-coding nuclear gene sequence.

Abstract: This study attempts to resolve relationships among and within the four basal arthropod lineages (Pancrustacea, Myriapoda, Euchelicerata, Pycnogonida) and to assess the widespread expectation that remaining phylogenetic problems will yield to increasing amounts of sequence data. Sixty-eight regions of 62 protein-coding nuclear genes (approximately 41 kilobases (kb)/taxon) were sequenced for 12 taxonomically diverse arthropod taxa and a tardigrade outgroup. Parsimony, likelihood, and Bayesian analyses of total nucleotide data generally strongly supported the monophyly of each of the basal lineages represented by more than one species. Other relationships within the Arthropoda were also supported, with support levels depending on method of analysis and inclusion/exclusion of synonymous changes. Removing third codon positions, where the assumption of base compositional homogeneity was rejected, altered the results. Removing the final class of synonymous mutations--first codon positions encoding leucine and arginine, which were also compositionally heterogeneous--yielded a data set that was consistent with a hypothesis of base compositional homogeneity. Furthermore, under such a data-exclusion regime, all 68 gene regions individually were consistent with base compositional homogeneity. Restricting likelihood analyses to nonsynonymous change recovered trees with strong support for the basal lineages but not for other groups that were variably supported with more inclusive data sets. In a further effort to increase phylogenetic signal, three types of data exploration were undertaken. (1) Individual genes were ranked by their average rate of nonsynonymous change, and three rate categories were assigned--fast, intermediate, and slow. Then, bootstrap analysis of each gene was performed separately to see which taxonomic groups received strong support. Five taxonomic groups were strongly supported independently by two or more genes, and these genes mostly belonged to the slow or intermediate categories, whereas groups supported only by a single gene region tended to be from genes of the fast category, arguing that fast genes provide a less consistent signal. (2) A sensitivity analysis was performed in which increasing numbers of genes were excluded, beginning with the fastest. The number of strongly supported nodes increased up to a point and then decreased slightly. Recovery of Hexapoda required removal of fast genes. Support for Mandibulata (Pancrustacea + Myriapoda) also increased, at times to "strong" levels, with removal of the fastest genes. (3) Concordance selection was evaluated by clustering genes according to their ability to recover Pancrustacea, Euchelicerata, or Myriapoda and analyzing the three clusters separately. All clusters of genes recovered the three concordance clades but were at times inconsistent in the relationships recovered among and within these clades, a result that indicates that the a priori concordance criteria may bias phylogenetic signal in unexpected ways. In a further attempt to increase support of taxonomic relationships, sequence data from 49 additional taxa for three slow genes (i.e., EF-1 alpha, EF-2, and Pol II) were combined with the various 13-taxon data sets. The 62-taxon analyses supported the results of the 13-taxon analyses and provided increased support for additional pancrustacean clades found in an earlier analysis including only EF-1 alpha, EF-2, and Pol II.

Pub.: 17 Dec '08, Pinned: 25 Sep '17

Comparison of different strategies for using fossil calibrations to generate the time prior in Bayesian molecular clock dating.

Abstract: Fossil calibrations are the utmost source of information for resolving the distances between molecular sequences into estimates of absolute times and absolute rates in molecular clock dating analysis. The quality of calibrations is thus expected to have a major impact on divergence time estimates even if a huge amount of molecular data is available. In Bayesian molecular clock dating, fossil calibration information is incorporated in the analysis through the prior on divergence times (the time prior). Here, we evaluate three strategies for converting fossil calibrations (in the form of minimum- and maximum-age bounds) into the prior on times, which differ according to whether they borrow information from the maximum age of ancestral nodes and minimum age of descendent nodes to form constraints for any given node on the phylogeny. We study a simple example that is analytically tractable, and analyse two real datasets (one of 10 primate species and another of 48 seed plant species) using three Bayesian dating programs: MCMCTree, MrBayes and BEAST2. We examine how different calibration strategies, the birth-death process, and automatic truncation (to enforce the constraint that ancestral nodes are older than descendent nodes) interact to determine the time prior. In general, truncation has a great impact on calibrations so that the effective priors on the calibration node ages after the truncation can be very different from the user-specified calibration densities. The different strategies for generating the effective prior also had considerable impact, leading to very different marginal effective priors. Arbitrary parameters used to implement minimum-bound calibrations were found to have a strong impact upon the prior and posterior of the divergence times. Our results highlight the importance of inspecting the joint time prior used by the dating program before any Bayesian dating analysis.

Pub.: 16 Jul '17, Pinned: 25 Sep '17

Phylogenetic species delimitation for crayfishes of the genus Pacifastacus.

Abstract: Molecular genetic approaches are playing an increasing role in conservation science by identifying biodiversity that may not be evident by morphology-based taxonomy and systematics. So-called cryptic species are particularly prevalent in freshwater environments, where isolation of dispersal-limited species, such as crayfishes, within dendritic river networks often gives rise to high intra- and inter-specific genetic divergence. We apply here a multi-gene molecular approach to investigate relationships among extant species of the crayfish genus Pacifastacus, representing the first comprehensive phylogenetic study of this taxonomic group. Importantly, Pacifastacus includes both the widely invasive signal crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus, as well as several species of conservation concern like the Shasta crayfish Pacifastacus fortis. Our analysis used 83 individuals sampled across the four extant Pacifastacus species (omitting the extinct Pacifastacus nigrescens), representing the known taxonomic diversity and geographic distributions within this genus as comprehensively as possible. We reconstructed phylogenetic trees from mitochondrial (16S, COI) and nuclear genes (GAPDH), both separately and using a combined or concatenated dataset, and performed several species delimitation analyses (PTP, ABGD, GMYC) on the COI phylogeny to propose Primary Species Hypotheses (PSHs) within the genus. All phylogenies recovered the genus Pacifastacus as monophyletic, within which we identified a range of six to 21 PSHs; more abundant PSHs delimitations from GMYC and ABGD were always nested within PSHs delimited by the more conservative PTP method. Pacifastacus leniusculus included the majority of PSHs and was not monophyletic relative to the other Pacifastacus species considered. Several of these highly distinct P. leniusculus PSHs likely require urgent conservation attention. Our results identify research needs and conservation priorities for Pacifastacus crayfishes in western North America, and may inform better understanding and management of P. leniusculus in regions where it is invasive, such as Europe and Japan.

Pub.: 27 Apr '16, Pinned: 25 Sep '17

Diversity and distribution patterns of the Oligocene and Miocene decapod crustaceans (Crustacea: Malacostraca) of the Western and Central Paratethys.

Abstract: Decapod associations have been significant components of marine habitats throughout the Cenozoic when the major diversification of the group occurred. In this respect, the circum-Mediterranean area is of particular interest due to its complex palaeogeographic history. During the Oligo-Miocene, it was divided in two major areas, Mediterranean and Paratethys. Decapod crustaceans from the Paratethys Sea have been reported in the literature since the 19(th) century, but only recent research advances allow evaluation of the diversity and distribution patterns of the group. Altogether 176 species-level taxa have been identified from the Oligocene and Miocene of the Western and Central Paratethys. Using the three-dimensional NMDS analysis, the composition of decapod crustacean faunas of the Paratethys shows significant differences through time. The Ottnangian and Karpatian decapod associations were similar to each other both taxonomically and in the mode of preservation, and they differed taxonomically from the Badenian ones. The Early Badenian assemblages also differed taxonomically from the Late Badenian ones. The time factor, including speciation, immigration from other provinces and/or (local or global) extinction, can explain temporal differences among assemblages within the same environment. High decapod diversity during the Badenian was correlated with the presence of reefal settings. The Badenian was the time with the highest decapod diversity, which can, however, be a consequence of undersampling of other time slices. Whereas the Ottnangian and Karpatian decapod assemblages are preserved virtually exclusively in the siliciclastic "Schlier"-type facies that originated in non-reefal offshore environments, carbonate sedimentation and the presence of reefal environments during the Badenian in the Central Paratethys promoted thriving of more diverse reef-associated assemblages. In general, Paratethyan decapods exhibited homogeneous distribution during the Oligo-Miocene among the basins in the Paratethys. Based on the co-occurrence of certain decapod species, migration between the Paratethys and the North Sea during the Early Miocene probably occurred via the Rhine Graben. At larger spatial scales, our results suggest that the circum-Mediterranean marine decapod taxa migrated in an easterly direction during the Oligocene and/or Miocene, establishing present-day decapod communities in the Indo-West Pacific.

Pub.: 28 Feb '17, Pinned: 25 Sep '17

The emergence of lobsters: phylogenetic relationships, morphological evolution and divergence time comparisons of an ancient group (decapoda: achelata, astacidea, glypheidea, polychelida).

Abstract: Lobsters are a ubiquitous and economically important group of decapod crustaceans that include the infraorders Polychelida, Glypheidea, Astacidea and Achelata. They include familiar forms such as the spiny, slipper, clawed lobsters and crayfish and unfamiliar forms such as the deep-sea and "living fossil" species. The high degree of morphological diversity among these infraorders has led to a dynamic classification and conflicting hypotheses of evolutionary relationships. In this study, we estimated phylogenetic relationships among the major groups of all lobster families and 94% of the genera using six genes (mitochondrial and nuclear) and 195 morphological characters across 173 species of lobsters for the most comprehensive sampling to date. Lobsters were recovered as a non-monophyletic assemblage in the combined (molecular + morphology) analysis. All families were monophyletic, with the exception of Cambaridae, and 7 of 79 genera were recovered as poly- or paraphyletic. A rich fossil history coupled with dense taxon coverage allowed us to estimate and compare divergence times and origins of major lineages using two drastically different approaches. Age priors were constructed and/or included based on fossil age information or fossil discovery, age, and extant species count data. Results from the two approaches were largely congruent across deep to shallow taxonomic divergences across major lineages. The origin of the first lobster-like decapod (Polychelida) was estimated in the Devonian (∼409-372 Ma) with all infraorders present in the Carboniferous (∼353-318 Ma). Fossil calibration subsampling studies examined the influence of sampling density (number of fossils) and placement (deep, middle, and shallow) on divergence time estimates. Results from our study suggest including at least 1 fossil per 10 operational taxonomic units (OTUs) in divergence dating analyses. [Dating; decapods; divergence; lobsters; molecular; morphology; phylogenetics.].

Pub.: 25 Feb '14, Pinned: 25 Sep '17