Collaborative Research

By Katie Leach   @lagomorpha_

Collaborations in science come with many benefits and are now advocated by most research councils, universities and scientific institutes. Collaborations can be between two researchers in the same department, between two researchers at the same university but in different departments or between universities. Chrislip & Larson (1994) define collaboration as “a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties to achieve common goals by sharing responsibility, authority and accountability for achieving results.” Collaboration can produce improved research, because more co-authors usually means more experience, lead to higher impact papers and increased number of publications, create the potential for future research and enhance communication skills. For students and early career researchers collaboration is a great addition to your CV; the skills gained are not only advantageous for academic careers, but many other career paths require candidates to demonstrate teamwork and communication skills.

In August, 2013, I attended the 11th INTECOL Congress in London, one of the largest ecology conferences with over 2,000 delegates from 68 countries! I was awarded a Training & Travel grant from the British Ecological Society to attend INTECOL and presented a poster detailing the work of my first PhD chapter. Poster presentations are a great way to network at conferences in an informal setting and allow you to meet a number of researchers in a short space of time. I was fortunate to meet Luis Verde-Arregoitia (@LuisDVerde), a PhD student (now finished) from the University of Queensland, during my poster session. Luis’ research focuses on mammals and extinction risk, and in one paper had found that Lagomorphs with more close relatives were less threatened. This trend is not seen in any other mammalian order. We discussed ideas for a follow up paper and with the additional guidance of our supervisors (Neil Reid & Diana Fisher) have published a paper in Ecography: Diversity, extinction and threat status in Lagomorphs.

The Order Lagomorpha contains twelve extant genera, of which three contain 85% of Lagomorph species (Ochotona, Lepus and Sylvilagus), with seven of the remaining nine genera containing only one species (monophyletic): Brachylagus, Bunolagus, Caprolagus, Oryctolagus, Pentalagus, Poelagus and Romerolagus. Species-poor genera are likely to share characteristics which have affected their diversification, for example they may be isolated on islands or mountain-tops, and this may lead to them experiencing higher levels of extinction risk meaning a large chunk of evolutionary history could be lost in the future.

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Rabbits from monotypic genera: Brachylagus (Pygmy rabbit) and Oryctolagus (European rabbit). Images credits: Tom Koerner/USFWS and Jean-Jacques Boujot respectively.

In this study, we used phylogenetic analyses to study the taxonomic imbalance within Lagomorph genera. Here, imbalance refers to the distribution of species among the different clades of a phylogeny. When some clades have many more species than other clades of equivalent rank (genera in our case), then a tree is imbalanced. We then tested whether variation in evolution, biogeography and ecology acted as predictors of extinction risk (based on International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List Categories) and diversity. We compared the shape of the Lagomorph phylogenetic tree to other mammalian orders, tested speciation and extinction rates by studying diversification and looked at whether extinction risk was phylogenetically clustered. To investigate the correlates of extinction risk, we used Phylogenetic Generalized Mixed Models to account for evolutionary non-independence between species and the ordered nature of the Red List categories.

We found that the Lagomorph phylogeny did not differ from the general pattern in other mammalian orders, which all share a similar proportion of monotypic species. Genus size was unrelated to present climate, topography or geographic range size and there was no phylogenetic signal in extinction risk. However, extinction risk was much greater in areas of high human population density, suggesting that human pressures are so severe and widespread that they override variation in the evolution, biogeography and ecology of species. Extinction risk was also negatively correlated with human-converted habitats, reflecting the success of species-rich genera in heavily modified agricultural areas.

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 Effects of minimum human population density (a) and habitat conversion (b) on the probabilities of falling into different extinction risk categories. Predicted probabilities (thick lines) with 95% Highest Posterior Density intervals (thin lines).

Differing extinction and speciation probabilities in the past has left many species-poor genera in the Order Lagomorpha, but we find that extinction risk is not phylogenetically clustered. We expected biogeographical and ecological variables to explain extinction risk and diversity in the Order, however human pressures override all of these. Our paper also includes a review of the paleobiogeography of each extant genus, because the fossil record can shed light on processes which may not necessarily leave a trace in a phylogeny of only living species.

I hope I have convinced you all of the value in attending conferences, presenting your research and beginning new collaborations!

Bonus tip from Luis: “When you meet interesting people at conferences/seminars/etc. make sure to get in touch as soon as you can. If you wait too long you’ll most likely forget about it, missing out on the benefits of collaboration. Write an outline of whatever ideas you discussed in person and don’t worry about how rough it is. Share it and kick ideas around until a nice paper is ready for submission.”

For more information check out the full paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ecog.01063/full.

References

Chrislip DD, Larson CE (1994) Collaborative leadership: how citizens and civic leaders can make a difference. Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, San Francisco, California.

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