Why am I (hopefully) moving my research project to Japan?

Let’s briefly recap my main research project. I am investigating the causes of endemism in the arthropods of Cyprus. The main cause is geographical isolation due to Cyprus being an island. Studies on island speciation come a dime a dozen, so this is not a novelty. Instead, what I am basing my project on is the effect of geology and specifically the heavy metal-rich serpentine soils prevalent in certain areas of Cyprus.

Serpentine soils are low in nutrients and rich in heavy metals, meaning that few plants can really grow on them. In effect, patches of serpentine soil count as islands in the landscape, often fostering a concentration of endemic plants adapted to the unique challenges of growing on a serpentine soil.

My project goes one step beyond by seeing if the serpentine soils also have an effect on the plant-associated arthropods. Are there any species that have evolved specifically to be associated with serpentine plants? How did this process happen? To go back to the speciation, do these serpentine endemics exhibit higher mutation rates due to the mutagenic heavy metals, and does this lead to higher rates of speciation? My main focus as someone who is primarily interested in macroevolution goes further than this standard microevolution and population biology. I want to investigate if this higher mutation rate leads to a faster rate in macroevolution, i.e. if there is a higher rate of “true” phenotypic differentiation rather than “just” cryptic speciation.

This is the cluster of questions I am dealing with in my project. The investigative scope goes from behavioural ecology (host plant associations, small-scale distribution patterns), to community ecology, to physiology (how heavy metals are dealt with), to my main focus of macroevolution (GxE maps, how genetic diversity affects phenotypic canalisation).

The investigative methods are similarly varied, consisting of live observation, trapping and GIS, dissection, phylogeography, and cladistics. Gene sequencing and molecular phylogenetics would be in there too, if the funding and infrastructure were available to me. Regardless, the amount fo data that is generated is fairly large, and all requires precise interpretation to fit into the context of my hypothesis.

So now that you know what I’m doing, we can look at the reason for wanting to take the project to Japan.

Both Japan and Cyprus are islands, meaning that the effect of geographic isolation can be directly compared in both. Plus, both of them have the required serpentine soils. However, their initial colonisation history is different. Cyprus rose sraight out of the sea and was isolated for tens of millions of years, while Japan was initially attached to the mainland and split off around 15 million years ago. In addition, Cyprus had a major surge in colonisation due to the Messinian Salinity Crisis when the Mediterranean dried up. However, both Japan and Cyprus were similarly affected by the Ice Ages, with land migrations enabled to both islands, and anthropogenic impacts are broadly similar.

So, while Japan does have significant differences, these differences allow for interesting comparisons to be drawn to the data from Cyprus, to allow the data to be calibrated. This is the main reason why I want to go to Japan. The research just in Cyprus has generated a lot of interesting things, but in order to put them into context and interpret them properly for publication, I need to contrast them with another case study, for which Japan is ideally suited.

And if there are any Japanese readers whose interest is piqued, any support while I’m there would be appreciated, so drop me an e-mail if you want to discuss a potential collaboration!

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