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Geological Sciences Seminar: Andrew Leslie, Brown University - "A cone's-eye view of plant evolution: integrating functional morphology, phylogeny, and the fossil record"

Date and Time: 
October 5, 2017 -
12:10pm to 1:10pm
GeoCorner, Room 220
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Department of Geological Science

I am broadly interested in understanding the processes that generate and constrain morphological diversity over long evolutionary timescales. I focus on plants, and particularly conifers, a group with a global distribution, rich living diversity and ecology, and an extensive fossil record stretching back into the Paleozoic. I use conifer reproductive structures (“cones”) as a study system, and my research integrates functional morphology, phylogenetic comparative methods, and paleontology in order to identify and interpret the major factors that drive morphological diversification in the group. My work generally highlights the importance of shifts in function for the evolution of morphological diversity. Major changes in conifer reproductive morphology primarily represent specializations for increased seed protection from animals, or alternatively, more effective seed dispersal by animals. Both the fossil record and dated molecular phylogenies suggest that these shifts began in the Jurassic and later accelerated with the diversification of small-bodied birds and mammals that increased the importance of seed protection and biotic seed dispersal relative to previous time periods. In addition to revealing important drivers of reproductive evolution in plants, conifers can also provide new insights into the evolution of terrestrial communities because their cones record ecological interactions within the forest canopy that are rarely preserved in the fossil record. My current research is focused on understanding these types of patterns within a spatial context, by testing geographic and climatic controls on the evolution of reproductive traits among living conifer species.