Two graduate students in BYU’s Department of Biology have earned prestigious, peer-reviewed grants from the National Geographic Society. They’ll use the funding to support research expeditions to Central and South America, which is a focus of the department’s graduate program.

Evolution may be repeating itself in Panamanian mountain streams

Spencer Ingley, a Ph.D. student studying with biology professor Jerry Johnson, landed a Young ExplorersGrant of $4,710 to support his research on fish in Panamanian mountain streams. This award comes on the heels of the National Science Foundation Fellowship he has already earned that pays his tuition and an annual stipend for the duration of his graduate work.

Ingley studies small, colorful fish known locally as “olomina,” a Spanish word similar to “minnow.” Technically they are calledBrachyrhaphis, and they are 1-5 inches long, with iridescent greens and blues gracing their scales. He collects them by the hundreds, using weighted nets attached to poles to hoist them out of hard-to-reach streams.

Although olomina are closely related to familiar fish such as guppies and swordtails, Ingley is using them to explore much bigger issues than pet behavior. He’s hoping the National Geographic Society money will help him determine patterns in how the fish adapted to changes in their environment that can then explain much wider trends in evolution of other animals.

For example, some of the fish, either individual populations or entire species, live in streams at higher elevation with no larger predatory fish. They typically live longer than their cousins who live in lower streams, who dodge predators throughout their entire lives. When they mature, when they reproduce, and ultimately the number of offspring they have at a given time are all heavily influenced by whether or not they live with predators. This pattern appears to repeat itself both within and between species, and understanding how reproductive barriers evolve to help form new species would be an important discovery for the field.

“We’re looking to see if they evolve in a predictable manner when they occur in similar divergent environments,” Ingley said. “That will help us understand what a species is, how a species comes to be, and how a species is maintained. Our findings could eventually have important implications in fields such as conservation and medicine, by helping us define what a species is and understand how they come to be.”

Ingley said he chose to pursue his graduate work at BYU because of the reputation of the biology department and the support of the faculty.

"Important discoveries in science depend on curiosity and hard work, but above all they depend on good ideas,” said Johnson, Ingley’s mentor. “Spencer's success stems largely from his ability to formulate innovative research questions and to come up with clever ways to answer these questions.  These are two very prestigious grants and they are clear evidence that Spencer is currently counted among the most promising young scientists in the country."

Finding new species of lizards in the Peruvian Andes

Cesar Aguilar teamed with his mentor Jack Sites, professor of biology, to earn a National Geographic Society/Waitt grant, designed to make funds available quickly for “proof of concept” research. The grant of $15,000 will support their study of lizards in the Peruvian Andes.

Aguilar studies a branch of a group of lizards known asLiolaemus. Sites has worked on this group in Argentina and Chile with colleagues in those countries. Based on those experiences, the duo expects to discover new species and even some rare phenomena. For example, some reptiles living at very high elevations have evolved to reproduce not by laying eggs, but by live births. Aguilar is likely to find new details about how this trait originated. That’s because one aspect of his work is using an electron microscope to study the microanatomy of the reptilian placenta evolution. Doing so in a group of closely related species that reproduce both by laying eggs and by live births allows scientists to reconstruct the origin and evolution of live birth by identifying when these traits originated on the lizards’ “family tree” as reconstructed by DNA sequences.  

“The environment to do research at BYU is great,” Aguilar said.

Sites, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and veteran of many research forays to South America, recognizes the promise of Aguilar’s work.

“Basic surveys in poorly-known regions of the world, such as the Peruvian Andes, are likely to turn up many unexpected observations,” Sites said. “Securing this award from National Geographic indicates that they are also confident that Cesar will make many new discoveries.”

This is actually the second of Sites’ graduate students to win a NGS grant. Three years ago, Fernanda Werneck secured $18,800 to conduct field work throughout South American tropical savannahs. She collected extensively in Brazil, with one trip also to Argentina.