Organisms today are faced with environmental change on a scale unknown in their evolutionary history. Their ancestral habitats have been converted to monocultures of crops or vast expanses of urban and suburban development, nutrient cycles are shifting due to fertilizer application, and the climate is changing rapidly. How will organisms respond to such novel and rapid changes in their environment? Not only is this a pressing question for conserving biodiversity today, but it is also relevant for understanding how past environmental change has shaped biological communities.
The Snell-Rood lab tackles this question in part by focusing on developmental plasticity – the ability of an organism to adaptively adjust their development in response to different environments. Highly plastic organisms can develop different behavior, physiology or morphology in a new environment, allowing for responses to environmental change within one generation. Current environmental change is occurring so quickly that for many populations, plastic responses may be especially important, especially if those species have long generation times or limited genetic variability. Research in the Snell-Rood lab aims to predict which species will show pronounced plastic responses to rapid environmental change, and how these responses interact with longer term evolutionary responses. We tend to use insects as model systems to test general hypotheses about plasticity because insects can be reared by the thousands and are easy to manipulate. Butterflies in particular make an excellent model system because we have an excellent grasp of their natural history thanks to generations of curious and hard-working scientists and amateur naturalists.