Alex Pyron Cites Extinction as a Dominating Force in Biodiversity Patterns | Schools
From Courtney Bowe:
GW biology professor and snake scholar, Alex Pyron, has been published in more than 15 academic journals, received two master’s degrees and earned a Ph.D. His latest accomplishment: developing a scientific model that could change the way researchers study the biodiversity of living creatures. Dr. Pyron is only 23.
As one of the youngest professors at the George Washington University, Dr. Pyron has created a scientifically strong case supporting the idea that large-scale extinction, not just speciation (species growth) as previously believed, can be a dominating process driving diversity patterns among snakes and other organisms.
“This is one of the first models to suggest that extinction over long periods of time accounts for ebbs and flows of species richness in a diverse group. Anyone who studies biodiversity now has another model to explain diversity within their group,” said Dr. Pyron. “The majority of previous research only looked at speciation as the main cause of diversity and large-scale extinction was rarely considered."
In collaboration with Frank T. Burbrink of the City University of New York, Dr. Pyron created the first snake phylogeny (family tree) to include all known families and subfamilies of the 3,500 snake species. From this comprehensive reptilian blood line, Dr. Pyron and Dr. Burbrink were able to determine the rate and time of speciation and extinction within various groups of snakes; the evolution of various traits, like venom development, within certain groups of snakes; and how the major groups of snakes are related.
"We find two very interesting and contrasting patterns in snakes," said Dr. Pyron. "First, key evolutionary events such as the development of venom, and the colonization of new areas such as the New World tropics, apparently resulted in the massive diversification of some young groups. However, large-scale extinction has apparently acted to reduce diversity in many old groups, yielding the unusual distribution of species richness in snakes. This research may help to understand similar patterns in other organisms."
Dr. Pyron’s research will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Evolution, one of the foremost publications in the field of evolutionary biology.
“This is an excellent example of how our young scholars are impacting our understanding of the world around us,” said Peg Barratt, dean of GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “I congratulate Dr. Pyron on his fascinating research in the area of biodiversity.”
Established in 1821 in the heart of the nation’s capital, The George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences is the largest of GW’s academic units. It encompasses the School of Media and Public Affairs, the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration and more than 40 departments and programs for undergraduate, graduate and professional studies. The Columbian College provides the foundation for GW’s commitment to the liberal arts and a broad education for all students. An internationally recognized faculty and active partnerships with prestigious research institutions place Columbian College at the forefront in advancing policy, enhancing culture and transforming lives through research and discovery.
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