Students identify new species

All good research begins with a good question, and finding a niche can be challenging. Marty Condon, professor of biology, found her niche more than 20 years ago, and she and her students now lead a pioneering international effort to uncover patterns of tropical diversity.

“There’s not another study of tropical insect/plant interactions like this,” Condon says.

Condon’s larger question is one of evolution: how can the Earth contain such a huge diversity of life? This question led her to study a strange type of rainforest cucumber that switches from male to female as it grows, and that study led to her ongoing studies of fruit flies for which the plant is an exclusive food source.

Condon discovered that the cucumbers play host to not one, but many species of fruit flies—very similar in appearance, but with distinct genetics and behavior. She and her students have identified 40 previously unknown fly species over the years and across many tropical locales.

“How do the flies tell each other apart?” they keep asking. Students such as summer researchers John Gammons and Kevin Houck study the flies both in the forest and in the lab. They watch how several species often coexist in the same proximity: some feeding on male flowers, some on female, some on both. They also pay close attention to differences in courtship rituals and other mating behavior. When the flies are dead, they perform DNA analysis, examine wing patterns, and use electron microscopy to expose minute details and variations.

These studies generate huge amounts of data. Last summer, senior Kori Ault decided to create a Web site that better organizes the research and invites more participation. The goal is to make the site accessible not only to other scientists, but also to schoolchildren, who are especially good at seeing patterns many scientists overlook.

“We’re trying to find a way to create an international science loop,” says Condon. “It would be really cool if the kids in places where the flies actually live sign onto this.”

Ault says she was especially inspired by Evolution 2006, an international conference for evolutionary biologists. She says that she “learned amazing things,” especially by talking to researchers and by reading papers to prepare for the meeting. And she felt proud that the research poster presented by two of Condon’s previous students was not relegated to the section reserved for undergraduates, but mixed in with the work of graduate students and professionals.

“I realized that I could see myself in this world,” Ault says. “I saw that I could do this and be one of these people.”