Evolution and Ecology Across Latitudes
Fall 2015, Winter 2016 and Spring 2016 quarters
Why are there so many species on the planet? Why are there more species nearer the equator than at the poles? This program seeks robust, meaningful explanations for these complex phenomena. In parallel, it approaches human cultural variation in a biotic context, addressing the questions: Where have humans traditionally fit in relation to biological nature, and how has our unparalleled within-species diversity been shaped by nonhuman forces? This program will introduce students to a unique and broadly applicable set of analytical tools, and apply them across a range of settings and scales that would be impossible in a traditional academic context.
We will study patterns across space and time, revealing the selective forces that shaped the distribution, form, behavior, and interaction of organisms from all extant branches of the tree of life. From mycorrhizal fungi that live in the roots of trees to bats collecting fruit high in the moonlit canopy, organisms are best understood embedded in the context of the forces that gave rise to them.
Though all sciences share a method of inquiry, the theoretical toolkit necessary to understand complex biological systems is different from the more familiar tools of the fundamental sciences, such as chemistry and physics. When an insect extracts nutrients from a leaf by detoxifying compounds built to deter herbivory, both the insect, and the plant whose leaf is consumed, have invested resources in an objective, and their gains and losses can be evaluated in terms similar to those in economics and engineering. We will apply concepts such as sunk costs, zero-sum game, and adaptive landscapes across systems and taxa.
We will compare Pacific Northwest rainforest to the Ecuadorian Amazon, witnessing ecology’s most extreme, ubiquitous, and mysterious species-diversity pattern: the latitudinal diversity gradient. We will compare the Amazon at Earth’s most species-rich location—Yasuní—with equatorial montane, cloud forest, and altiplano habitats, revealing dramatic predictable reductions in species diversity that occur at a given latitude, with increases in elevation. And we will compare the high-diversity Amazonian habitat in the humid lowland east to the comparatively low-diversity habitats of the arid Andean rainshadow to the west.
In tandem with our study of habitats, we will seek to understand indigenous cultures that have historically inhabited these biomes. We will consider the impact of glaciation and the role it played in initiating the diaspora of New World populations which diversified across the entirety of the Americas before Europeans arrived in the 15th century. Where there is archaeological evidence, we will interpret it in the context of the precolonial world.
In fall, we will focus on logical tools, concepts, and language needed to understand evolutionary patterns. We will investigate levels of selection, and grapple with the relationship between genes, cultural memes, and epigenetic markers. We will take several field trips within Washington to experience relevant phenomena (e.g., Hoh rainforest, indigenous fishing on the Klickitat River, the channeled scablands). In winter and spring, we will travel to Ecuador, visit several sites, and spend extended field time investigating patterns across a tropical landscape of unparalleled diversity.
Fields of Study
Preparatory for studies or careers in
Location and Schedule
Offered during: Day