The ability of animals to respond to and adjust to environmental challenges and change has been an outstanding, great biological question for centuries. Interactions with the environment can shape the distribution and dynamics of populations and alter individual function and performance. As such, response to the environment is a key component of Darwinian selection and thus a key driver in the creation, and maintenance of biodiversity. The importance of resolving the linkage between organisms and their environment is increasingly important to predict organismal as well as ecosystem responses to climate change. Thus this question is both topical and deeply entrenched in ecology and evolution.
A large portion of the global biodiversity resides in the turbulent, ever-changing ocean. Aside from the inherent variability of the ocean, marine organisms also face multifaceted challenges in the near future due to anthropogenic activities. Predicted environmental changes include directional changes, such as rising temperatures and decreasing pH, to which progressive adaptations may be possible, as well as changes in the scale of environmental variation, such as more severe and frequent weather events, to which directional adaptations may not suffice; instead, greater plasticity on ecological timescales may be required.
We need a more complete understanding of how species respond to both directional pressures and variable pressures in order to launch effective conservation efforts to ensure the health of our marine food-stocks, ecosystem services, and to preserve global biodiversity. An international effort has already made strides in addressing the response to many of the directional pressures, especially temperature and more recently ocean acidification. Less emphasis has been placed on responses to changes in the frequency or severity of episodic events, or environmental variability.
My research focuses on the larval stage of marine invertebrates and fishes as a key mediator of responses to a spatially and temporally variable environment. The larval stage is ecologically critical, developmentally constrained, and subject to natural selection. Thus, larval responses may be key to achieving rapid adaptation, species persistence, and maintaining ecosystem function on the seafloor and in the water column. I use integrative and interdisciplinary approaches to consider the role of larval dispersal in population and species persistence, and the role molecular and organismal responses in larvae for the persistence of individuals.