Research Summary

Phylogenetics & Biodiversity. Development and application of phylogenetic methods in ecology and conservation biology. Phylogenetics offers a powerful means to explore evolutionary mechanisms shaping ecological patterns and the distribution of species richness. A better understanding of the processes shaping biodiversity patterns will be critical if we wish to reduce current rates of biodiversity loss.


"A history lesson, textbook, and lab manual all in one, this terrific book explores the concepts and methods at the intersection of ecology and phylogenetics, from community ecology to conservation. Perfect for experienced researchers and students new to the field."--David Ackerly, University of California, Berkeley

"With scope and rigor, this book makes a compelling case that there are indeed ways to gain insights into important ecological questions using phylogenetic methods. A significant contribution to the field, the book presents new conceptions of how community assembly and evolutionary history interact, as well as new interpretations of data. This work provides a clear blueprint for moving the field ahead and will greatly catalyze future work."--Mathew Leibold, University of Texas, Austin
Phylogenies in Ecology is the first book to critically review the application of phylogenetic methods in ecology, and it serves as a primer to working ecologists and students of ecology wishing to understand these methods.
Phylogenies in Ecology will interest anyone who thinks that evolution might be important in their data.

Research In The News

Mammals, spiny plants and the savanna story

The evolution and distribution of spiny plants holds clue to spread of African savanna
You may have seen pictures of gazelle delicately picking leaves off branches full of wicked-looking spines that are many centimetres long. Here, we show that the eating habits of antelopes and their relatives are responsible, at least in part, for the creation of the savanna biome. Previously it has been difficult to get a picture of how savanna ecosystems arose because the conditions needed to preserve animal and plant fossils are very different from one another. But working with the African Centre for DNA Barcoding at the University of Johannesburg, we were able to sequence and compare DNA from nearly 2000 trees, and show that African plants only developed spines about 15 million years ago. That was about the same time that a new type of mammal, antelope and their relatives, spread across the continent following the collision between the continental plates of Africa and Eurasia.”

Prior to this collision, the African continent had been dominated by the large, now extinct, ancestors of browsing elephants and hyrax. Elephants were so massive that spines provided little defence against them; however, the antelopes who came after them were highly efficient browsers, often using their lips to take delicate bites from the leaves of these plants. So it is likely that plants developed spines to defend themselves against these new plant ‘predators’.”

The evolution of a spiny defence
What emerges from this research is a picture of a remarkable ‘arms race’ between plants and plant-eaters: the arrival of a new and efficient group of herbivores on the African continent that feasted upon young forest trees, opening up the ancient forests to the spread of grass, and the evolution of spiny plants that developed longer and longer spines in an attempt to protect themselves from these browsers.

Charles-Dominique, T., Davies, T.J., Hempson, G.P., Bezeng, B.S., Daru, B.H., Kabongo, R.M., Maurin, O., Muasya, A.M., van der Bank, M., Bond, W.J. [2016] Spiny plants, mammal browsers and the origin of African savannas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1607493113

Browsing antelope turned ancient African forests into grassy savanna ecosystems:
The thorny side of antelope evolution in Africa:
Mammals, spiny plants and the savanna story

The Underground Forests of Africa

Artwork credit:

Savannas are one of the world's major biomes, and today they cover about 20% of the world’s vegetated land surface. Over large parts of their range, savannas occur in mosaics with forests leading to the idea that they are products of anthropogenic fire and deforestation. In this study, we explored the origin of savannas in Africa, using geoxylic suffrutices, White’s underground forests of Africa, as markers for fire-maintained ecosystems. Our results suggest that these savanna ecosystems first appeared in the tropics and then subsequently spread to lower latitudes in southern Africa, but millions of years before humans began to fell and burn forests. This study provides the first evidence for dates of emergence of higher rainfall savannas in Africa and supports the role of fire in their origin and expansion.

Maurin O, Davies T.J., Burrows J.E., 4, Daru, B.H., Yessoufou, K., Muasya, A.M., Van der Bank M, Bond WJ [2014] Savanna fire and the origins of “underground forests” of Africa. New Phytologist doi: 10.1111/nph.12936.


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Contact information:
Dr. Jonathan Davies
Department of Biology, McGill University
Stewart Biology Building
1205 ave Docteur Penfield, Room W3/4
Montreal, Quebec CANADA H3A 1B1

Tel: 514-398-8885
Fax: 514-398-5069