Figs & Wasps
Ecology and evolution of figs and fig wasps
This study is lead by G. Weiblen (University of Minnesota). His research
examines the ecology and evolutionary history of the intricate relationships
between figs, their pollinators, and their parasites. The fig is a microcosm for
studying a simplified community with different members, costs, benefits, and
limited resources. Understanding how these small-scale interactions evolve
can tell us a lot about the patterns and processes of larger ecological
communities, such as tropical rain forests. The story of fig pollination is
fascinating on its own, but it also points to an important lesson about the
ecology of the tropical rain forest, that many different kinds of living things
depend on each other.
Specimens provide samples of genetic variation that can be used to
reconstruct the evolutionary history of living species in the present day. DNA
sequences are long strings of four simple molecules, abbreviated as A, G, C,
and T, and these sequences can change over time.
Species that share a common ancestor accumulate genetic changes over time, like
mutations. By comparing changes in DNA sequences from different fig species, it is
possible to arrange the species in groups, according to their divergence from
the common ancestor. You can visualize these evolutionary relationships like branches
of a tree, with the leaves at the tips representing the species that exist today.
Such relationships are the key to understanding the origin of fig pollination,
and the diversity of life as a whole.