SG: Collaborative Research: Evolution and Speciation in Afromontane and Alpine Grasshoppers in Southern Africa
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Understanding and documenting the world''s biodiversity is the first step in biological conservation. Among many biodiversity hotpots around the world, southern Africa is particularly well-known for its diverse and unique plants and animals. Over the past decade, scientists have documented more than 600 species of grasshoppers from this region. Grasshoppers are ecologically and economically important as they are critical components of terrestrial ecosystems, especially grasslands, and include several serious pest species. Despite the years of biodiversity research in southern Africa, scientists have recognized that there is a certain fauna that has never been fully explored - the flightless grasshoppers occupying the mountain forests in South Africa. The forest patches and isolated mountain peaks in this area represent habitat islands, and there is no other land-based system of habitat islands in the world with the number, size, and configurational complexity as the Afromontane zone in South Africa. This project focuses on understanding the total diversity of grasshoppers in this amazing and complex landscape and the processes shaping this diversity. The results from this project will provide critical information about species diversification in complex habitats and help researchers better understand species diversity and distributions in similar habitats in the US and around the world.This project will focus on the grasshopper family Lentulidae, which is endemic to southern Africa, and address the following two questions: (i) What is the total species diversity of Lentulidae in the alpine and Afromontane regions in South Africa? and (ii) What are patterns of speciation and diversification in Lentulidae as related to their geographic distribution? Scientists will explore inselbergs (isolated mountain peaks rising abruptly from surroundings) and adjacent plateaus in the Drakensberg Escarpment and the Afromontane forest patches in South Africa in search of new species. Using modern taxonomic techniques, the scientists will rapidly describe this unique grasshopper fauna and make the resulting specimen-level data digitally available to the public. The project will also reconstruct the evolutionary relationships among the focal taxa to examine how these small flightless grasshoppers have colonized and diversified in isolated inselbergs and Afromontane forest patches. Specifically, genome-scale single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data will be generated using RAD-Seq to estimate phylogeographic patterns as well as for inferring population genetic structures for those species that appear to be widespread. The project will provide hands-on research and mentoring experience for undergraduate students at Texas A&M University and Drexel University.