My dissertation research focuses on the evolutionary processes that drive biodiversity, especially in primates. Lemurs are the only primates on Madagascar. The lemur ancestor arrived on Madagascar 50 million years ago and found little competition from other kinds of animals. Lemurs are a classic example of an adaptive radiation, when organisms colonize a new place and diversify to fill many open ecological niches. There are many hypotheses for how and where this diversification occurred. To test these hypotheses, I am taking an approach adapted from phylogenetic systematics, community ecology, and historical biogeography.
First, the evolutionary tree of lemurs is unclear. Most of the basic relationships among lemurs, including the early origins of the five main clades of lemurs, are unresolved. Many studies have brought morphological or molecular data to bear on the question of lemur evolution, but a well resolved phylogeny is still unavailable. I plan to use a total evidence approach, combining morphological and molecular data, to clarify the evolutionary relationships among lemurs. I am interested in lemur phylogenetics at all scales. I am interested in how all the lemur taxa are related to each other, as well as how populations within species are related. I take both perspectives in my research to test how evolutionary mechanisms could have shaped lemur diversification.
Second, the evolutionary processes by which lemur speciation occurred have been debated since the 1970s. Different hypotheses have been presented, but all suggest that geographic mechanisms have caused diversification among species. Riverine or mountain barriers may have segregated populations; populations may have been separated during periods of Pleistocene climate change; populations may have adapted to the many climatic niches available in Madagascar. New data about the phylogenetic systematics of lemurs can now be included to help reconstruct the geographic processes that drive lemur evolution. I plan to use historical biogeographic reconstruction to test hypotheses for geographic mechanisms of evolution across all lemurs, as well as focusing on a phylogeographic analysis of one genus, Cheirogaleus.
Last, lemurs are diverse across the island as well as within regions. Ten to 14 species may coexist in the same forest. How have such diverse communities come to be? Could competition among species for limited resources have shaped lemur communities? Or could the habitat be limiting the species to those with adaptations to the environment? New approaches in community ecology and evolutionary ecology can tease apart these subtle effects and help clarify the role of community ecology in lemur evolution.
In sum, my research focuses on incorporating phylogenetic information to test the evolutionary mechanisms that result in species diversity and distribution. In the future, I plan to expand from lemurs to other plant and animal taxa in Madagascar to test if the patterns I find for lemurs hold true for other kinds of life. I also plan to use this information to identify areas of endemism and hotspots of biodiversity to prioritize forests for conservation and management.
I try to use my research as an educational platform. I try to bring education to many different levels. In the US, I have participated in many events to share my experiences and research in Madagascar with students in primary to graduate school. I have given talks and lectures for a variety of groups including special education primary schools, scholarship programs for minorities, and Study Abroad programs. I have also supervised independent research by undergraduates in Madagascar. I believe in sharing my results with a broad audience, and I will make my research results accessible to many communities. I will share my data so that other researchers can use my results to further their own work. I will also distill my results for the general public, to raise understanding about evolution and awareness about biodiversity loss.
In Madagascar, I train local people from remote villages to conduct research, hold discussion groups with villagers and in schools, and support the independent research of undergraduate and graduate students. I have supported the research of three Malagasy university students, training them to conduct conservation research and encouraging their independent work. I work with national agencies like the Madagascar National Park service as well as nongovernment organizations such as the Malagasy Institute pour la Protection des Ecosystems Tropical and the Centre ValBio research station. I am collaborating with local villagers near my research site in Ranomafana National Park to operate a native-tree nursery, with the goal of reforesting areas in the park periphery that have been denuded for agriculture.
Through these activities, I hope to have a positive impact on science by taking my field further as well as communicating that science outside of my academic sphere.
BA in Anthropology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, 2009 MA in Anthropology, Stony Brook University, 2011 Entered the IDPAS: 2009
Advisors: Patricia Wright and Erik Seiffert
Contact Information: email: James.Herrera@stonybrook.edu Mailing address: IDPAS/Anthropology Stony Brook University SBS Bldg., 5th Floor Stony Brook, N.Y. 11794-4364