Luke Mahler received this year’s Fisher Award, given by the Society for the Study of Evolution for the best paper emanating from a Ph.D. thesis published in Evolution in the preceding year. Mahler asked “what is the trigger for adaptive radiation?” and answered, “ecological opportunity”: a wealth of evolutionarily accessible resources (from Schluter). This leads to the prediction that the pace of adaptive radiation is regulated by competition, and is thus diversity-dependent. This hypothesis has been tested greatly in recent years by seeing if the rate of species diversification decreases through time as a clade radiates. But, Mahler argued, counting species is not enough—rather, we need to focus on patterns of diversification in adaptive traits.
Focusing on Greater Antillean anoles, Mahler asked whether rates of ecomorphological diversification decline as the number of species on an island increases. Testing this hypothesis requires estimating historical ecological opportunity (EO) by inferring ancestral species richness on an island and estimating rates of morphological evolution at ancestral nodes and how they changed as a function EO. To do this, Mahler and co-author Liam Revell developed at maximum likelihood approach to infer ancestral states incorporating uncertainty on the reconstruction of ancestral biogeographic locations.
The result is strong support for the ecological opportunity model. Rates of ecomorphological evolution are high early in anole radiation, but decline with increasing species richness.