September 23, 2013

Grant to Fund Research on Bioluminescence in Deep Sea Organisms

Research associate Matt Davis and Ichthyology Curator Leo Smith have learned that their proposal "Collaborative Research: Diversification in the Deep-Sea and the Evolution of Fangs, Bioluminescence, Hermaphroditism, and Marine Habitat Transitions" has been awarded $575,000 by the National Science Foundation. Of the grant, $425,000 was awarded to PI Davis and Co-PI Smith (University of Kansas), and $150,000 was awarded to PI J.S. Sparks of the American Museum of Natural History.

Grant summary: All animals that have evolved in the deep sea are under similar selective pressures as a result of the environmental extremes (e.g., little to no penetrable sunlight, high atmospheric pressure). This extreme habitat has led to massive convergence in animal morphology and behavior across deep-sea organisms ranging from the production and emission of light (bioluminescence) to the evolution of enlarged fangs and gaping mouths. This multidisciplinary project will investigate the processes that have impacted the evolution of deep-sea fishes and their success in this fascinating aquatic realm. This study integrates phylogenetic relationships based on genetic and morphological data, comparative morphology, ecology, and evolutionary biology in an effort to broaden our understanding of fishes that have evolved, thrived, and diversified in the deep sea.

This research will increase our understanding of a diverse array of deep-sea evolutionary adaptations, including bioluminescent structures that are used for predation, defense, species recognition, and sexual selection. These novel morphologies and behaviors have never before been studied within the context of a robust evolutionary framework based on molecular and morphological data. The resulting hypotheses will include a temporal component based on the fossil record that will allow us to explore, for the first time, whether these specializations are having potential effects on speciation in the deep sea. This project will support the training of postdoctoral, graduate, undergraduate, and high school students in marine biology, systematics, and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and American Museum of Natural History. Findings from this work will continue to augment a new bioluminescence exhibit created and curated by PI Sparks and co-PI Smith (Creatures of Light).