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Friday, 13 July 2012

Nelson G. Hairston, Jr.
Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Environmental Science and Associate Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University

Presentation: Hutchinson’s “Ecological Theater” As Improv: Eco-Evolutionary Responses To Environmental Change.

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Biographical Information: Nelson G. Hairston, Jr. is Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Environmental Science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, USA. He studies ecological and evolutionary responses of freshwater organisms to environmental change. His study systems range from close to home (Cayuga Lake, Onondaga Lake & Oneida Lake, NY) to more distant (Lake Constance, Swiss Alps) and from large (Lake Ontario) to small (laboratory microcosms). Research in his laboratory and with colleagues has shown that populations can adapt evolve over very short time periods to changing environments. Algae adapt genetically to high grazing intensity altering consumer-resource cycles, consumers evolve resistance to elevated cyanobacteria, copepods evolve life histories that protect them from seasonal fish predation, and so on. In addition, he has discovered that the dormant eggs of zooplankton can survive for decades or even centuries in lake sediments and then hatch: a phenomenon that not only influences how organisms and lake ecosystems respond to environmental changes such as nutrient pollution and introductions of non-native fishes, but also provides limnologists with a tool to study adaptive evolution using living animals from a sequence of times in the past. He has been a member of ASLO since 1972. Hairston received his BS degree (1971) in Zoology from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. (1977) in Zoology from the University of Washington where he studied with renowned limnologist W.T. Edmondson. He served as a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island (1977-1985) and has been on the faculty at Cornell since 1985. He is former Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and is currently Senior Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Cornell University Board of Trustees.

Aquatic life is continually challenged by environmental change. Excellent research has been dedicated to understanding how marine and freshwater organisms respond as the world to which they are adapted is altered by species introductions, pollution, and changing climate. Hutchison’s famous 1965 essays “The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play” framed the idea that adaption matters: the environment defines the available niches to which organisms have evolved as efficient users. Evidence has mounted recently, however, for a more immediate interaction between ecology and evolution in which genetic adaptations of populations change at essentially the same rate as population abundance. Both occur on the time scale of generations. Adaptations can become the basis for further environmental change creating a feedback loop in which adaptation alters environment, which alters selection driving further adaptation, and so on: Hutchinson’s theater and play turn out to be improvisational. I explore evidence for these eco-evolutionary dynamics in aquatic systems, ask under what conditions they are important, and suggest ways to determine how important rapid evolution is for understanding the response of aquatic systems to environmental change.