Figs & Wasps

Ecology and evolution of figs and fig wasps

This study is lead by G. Weiblen (University of Minnesota). His research
examines the ecology and evolutionary history of the intricate relationships 
between figs, their pollinators, and their parasites. The fig is a microcosm for 
studying a simplified community with different members, costs, benefits, and 
limited resources. Understanding how these small-scale interactions evolve 
can tell us a lot about the patterns and processes of larger ecological 
communities, such as tropical rain forests. The story of fig pollination is
fascinating on its own, but it also points to an important lesson about the 
ecology of the tropical rain forest, that many different kinds of living things
depend on each other. 

Specimens provide samples of genetic variation that can be used to reconstruct the evolutionary history of living species in the present day. DNA sequences are long strings of four simple molecules, abbreviated as A, G, C, and T, and these sequences can change over time.
Species that share a common ancestor accumulate genetic changes over time, like mutations. By comparing changes in DNA sequences from different fig species, it is possible to arrange the species in groups, according to their divergence from the common ancestor. You can visualize these evolutionary relationships like branches of a tree, with the leaves at the tips representing the species that exist today. Such relationships are the key to understanding the origin of fig pollination, and the diversity of life as a whole.