Species discovery and the coexistence of tropical trees
Mentor: John Guittar
What if two species of tropical trees looked almost the same in a forest of over a thousand? How many “cryptic” species are unknown to science, and how many species should be "lumped" together? If two tree species are so similar-looking, what makes them ecologically different? This project uses genetics to investigate the number and evolutionary relationships of over 30 species in Pouteria, a genus of tropical trees that is ecologically important but particularly prone to mis-identification. We collect leaf tissue samples in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador, for DNA extraction and sequencing in the lab of Christopher Dick. After processing the genetic data to delineate species, we test for evolutionary and trait-based patterns in the Pouteria community to address another enigma of tropical diversity: how so many tree species can seemingly coexist in the same square mile of forest.