Research in the Frishkoff Lab

Human impacts on the environment are recasting ecological and evolutionary patterns forged over millennia. Research in the lab focuses on understanding this reordering: both why and how biodiversity built up in natural systems, and then why most species fail but some benefit from the environmental change in an increasingly human-dominated era. Our work focuses on populations and communities, primarily using reptiles and amphibians as focal organisms. The lab conducts field, lab, and computer work to accomplish our research goals, weaving together biological field surveys, hierarchical statistical modeling, species distribution modeling, physiological experiments, and genomic sequencing.

Some Current Projects

Anthropocene biogeography and what determines species success in human-modified habitats

A core question that the lab is devoted to is understanding why some species benefit from anthropogenic change, while most do not. As part of this, we focus on (1) elucidating the ecological mechanisms that permit and prevent species from surviving after anthropogenic change, (2) understanding how biogeography is changing in the Anthropocene and why species from some areas of the globe are particularly successful, and (3) determining how habitat conversion is pruning the phylogenetic tree of life, and whether past macroevolution (e.g. convergence, adaptive radiation) prepares species to handle rapid ecological change. See our recent paper showing how whether a trait helps or hurts a species survive in habitat loss can defend on what climate the species’ finds itself in.

Range limits at landscape and regional scales

Why aren’t all species everywhere? While most species’ ranges correlate with climate boundaries it’s rarely clear what about the climate is limiting a species, and whether its effects are direct, or indirect, modulated through climate’s effects on food resources or competitors. We are why lizard ranges end along a steep precipitation gradient across the state of Texas, trying to understand why lizards associated with the wet eastern part of the state don’t occur in the dry west, and vice versa.

The drivers of commonness and rarity

Is ecological specialization necessary to be successful and avoid being outcompeted in communities? Or can a jack-of-all-trades actually master it all? Do generalists evolve primarily in species-poor regions, and get replaced by specialists as adaptive radiations age and diversify? What does it even mean to be a generalist, given that the same species can have a broad niche along some niche axes, and a narrow niche on others?  Using the replicated adaptive radiation of Anolis lizards on the Greater Antilles the Frishkoff lab, along with collaborators Luke Mahler, at the University of Toronto, and Martha Muñoz at Yale University, are investigating how niche width evolution along temperature, dietary, and structural habitat axes promote commonness and rarity.

Where we work

Texas, United States

Coto Brus, Costa Rica

The Coto Brus valley and the Las Cruces Biological Station have been centers for the development and testing of Countryside Biogeography, which seeks to understand the ecological forces that structure communities, and determine range boundaries at the landscape scale. Here we’ve tested whether phylogenetic history predicts how bat species respond to land-use change and intensification, the physiological mechanisms that determine amphibian tolerance of deforestation, and the abilities of private-lands to conserve biodiversity.

Guanacaste, Costa Rica

The Guanacaste peninsula contains a strong precipitation gradient spanning from dry forest in the interior (~1500mm rainfall per year) to moist forest closer to the coast (~3000mm rainfall). Since 2016 in collaboration with the Karp lab we’ve conducted bird abundance surveys along independent land-use and climate gradients to understand how the interaction between these forces shape communities. This work will help forecast non-linearities and synergies for biodiversity under increasing threats from habitat conversion and climate change. See our recent publication from this system: Agriculture erases climate‐driven β‐diversity in Neotropical bird communities

The Caribbean – Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic

The islands of the Caribbean act like individual test tubes in a massive evolutionary experiment unfolding over tens of millions of years. We study the Anolis lizards of the Caribbean to understand how adaptive radiation, and convergent evolution inform our understanding of how species respond to Anthropogenic change. Do unrelated lizards on different islands with convergent morphologies repeatedly prosper in human habitats? Or is tolerance to anthropogenic change phylogenetically conserved, even when other aspects of species ecologies are not? Since 2016 we’ve been conducting mark-resight surveys of Anolis lizard communities, spanning climate gradients from lowland to highland, wet to dry, hot to cold, and land-use gradients from pristine to highly disturbed. This project will help address the prevalence of convergent pre-adaptation to anthropogenic change.