Erin Saupe, Associate Professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, gave an interesting talk on the evolutionary responses of species to changing environments over geological time scales. Dr Saupe combines the study of the fossil record and ecological modelling to examine species response in the past to changes in the environment, either by changes in their distribution or by niche shifts, and how frequent these are.
Dr Saupe used computer models to infer the paleodistribution of several animal species millions of years ago, and compared those inferred distributions with the fossil record to prove the accuracy of the models. Among other examples, she showed how taxa nowadays exclusive to the Southern hemisphere were predicted to inhabit the Northern hemisphere a long time ago, and how this was confirmed by fossil remains found in those northern locations hypothesised by the distribution models.
Although all examples in Dr Saupe’s talk came from the animal kingdom —mainly from marine molluscs and fish —her approach may also be useful to study ancient changes in the distribution of plant species, and hence predict the response of those species to future changes in the environment.
Pablo Muñoz Rodríguez is a DPhil student studying the sweet potato. His research utilises morphological and molecular sequence data to address a number of questions concerning the sweet potato and its wild relatives. Follow Pablo @pablomurod