• An evolutionary ecologist.
  • A Joshua tree researcher.
  • Amazed by my students’ abilities.
  • A National Science Foundation grant winner.
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Professor Chris Smith researches the co-evolution of the Joshua tree and its pollinators.

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Several of Smith’s students traveled with him to Nevada to collect research data.

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Unlocking the Secrets of Co-Evolution

Professor Chris Smith and his students research co-evolution in America’s southwest deserts.

When visitors traveled Nevada's famed "Extraterrestrial Highway" last summer, they may have seen something even stranger than the UFOs they hoped to spot — two Willamette students on tall ladders peering down at the flowers that grow atop Joshua trees.

The students were documenting what many consider the Holy Grail of co-evolution direct evidence of reciprocal natural selection between species.

Jeff Collins and Tyler Starr were part of a research project spearheaded by biology Professor Chris Smith and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Researching Side-by-Side

The three worked together as part of the Science Collaborative Research Program, which prepares undergraduate students for professional careers through collaborative research with faculty.

"I'm astounded at their abilities," says Smith of his lab assistants. "They are both as talented as some of the best graduate students I've worked with.

"Students learn best when they are actively involved in the educational process. By undertaking their own research, they gain independence from the instructor and become the architects of their own education."

Species Evolving Together

At 43 research sites spread across Arizona, Nevada and California, Smith and his students examined Joshua trees to determine whether reciprocal evolutionary change is shaping the relationship between the tree and its pollinators.

The trees are pollinated exclusively by two species of yucca moth. The moths, in turn, reproduce by laying their eggs in the creamy white Joshua tree flowers. Upon hatching, the eggs become caterpillars that eat Joshua tree seeds.

Thus, the relationship between the Joshua tree and its pollinators is one of complete interdependence; both the moth and the desert plant are entirely reliant upon one another for reproduction.

Smith and his students discovered compelling evidence that the two species are evolving together in a reciprocal manner, each influencing the evolution of the other.

"There's so much more I want to ask," says Starr, who plans to further his studies in graduate school. "This project definitely brings up a lot of questions even as you answer them. It's a constant search for answers."

ABOUT CHRIS SMITH

  • PhD, Harvard University
  • Courses include ecology, evolution and diversity; evolutionary biology; and molecular ecology.
  • Research interests include the role of ecological processes in shaping evolutionary patterns
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