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New ontology-informed models to reconstruct evolutionary dynamics of phenotype

Understanding processes of phenotypic evolution is one of the fundamental challenges in evolutionary biology. However, available comparative phylogenetic methods are only capable to model evolutionary dynamics in trait-by-trait manner (i.e. all traits are treated separately). At the same time, every phenotype exhibits a complex network of relationships between organismal traits. These relationships along with the properties of the traits represent the anatomy ontology whose structure has been ignored in modeling trait evolution. The present arsenal of statistical phylogenetics lacks any method capable to model evolution of entire phenotype conditional on relationships among organismal traits i.e. anatomy ontology.

In this project, I use the statistical framework of Bayesian networks to develop new models which allow reconstruction of evolutionary dynamics in entire phenotype. The inference tools for such models will be implemented in a separate R package.

Such ontology-informed models of evolution will allow addressing major biological questions on (1) the adaptive dynamics of morphology over space and time, (2) the evolutionary dynamics of morphological complexity over space and time, and (3) the origin of evolutionary novelties. Additionally, they have a potential to enhance development of methods for mapping phenotypic and genotypic traits.

Dung beetle systematics and phylogenetics

A plethora of studies published over the last two decades produced numerous contradictory phylogenies leading to the lack of consensus on phylogenetic history in dung beetles. Moreover, those conflicting phylogenies, along with unstudied fossils, have significantly hampered our understanding of dung beetle evolution. Due to these reasons present classification of dung beetles is a mess.

I am working (with collaborators) on reconstructing a global and robust phylogenetic tree for dung beetles using molecules, morphology and fossils through analyzing them with traditional and novel (where necessary) methods. At the same time, I utilize the phylogenetic approach to revise present dung beetle classification.

Descriptive taxonomy of dung beetles

Dung beetles is a globally distributed groups comprising ~6000 described species. Additionally, ~30–50% of dung beetle diversity is deemed to be undescribed. One of my ongoing projects is the description of dung beetle species diversity. Description-wise my favorite group of dung beetles is the maga-diverse genus Onthophagus that numbers ~2000 species world-wide being one of the largest animal genera on Earth.

In this research, I am trying to facilitate and speed up the species descriptions by employing various cybertaxonomic aproaches.

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