Bonnie Blaimer, Postdoctoral Fellow
My research interests broadly encompass the field of systematics, diversity and evolution of insects, particularly ants. Ants fascinate me because of their extreme functional, morphological and phylogenetic diversity, and their complex social structure and countless intriguing associations with other organisms. My primary research goals are:
- Advancing knowledge about historical and contemporary evolutionary processes and patterns that have shaped species diversity and distributions.
- Extending current knowledge of insect taxonomic and distribution data, and promoting its use in conservation, especially in the Afrotropical region.
- Improving ant systematics through integrative approaches that combine molecular, morphological and ecological data.
Phylogenomics using ultra-conserved elements: Most recently, I am working on several phylogenomic projects at the Smithsonian focusing on higher-level and species-level relationships within the Hymenoptera, where I am employing high-throughput sequencing to generate more than 1000 loci of UCEs (ultra-conserved elements). Our primary goal is to resolve challenging parts of the Hymenopteran Tree of Life that remained unresolved by smaller Sanger sequencing data sets. Recently completed projects focused on 1) elucidating the systematics and time-scale of the evolution of the ant subfamily Formicinae, and 2) the evolution and biogeography of Acropyga ants, a small, world-wide clade of subterranean ants that form mutualistic associations with root-feeding mealybugs. Projects in progress, for example, include 3) the targeted sequence capture of UCEs from century-old museum specimens, using Carpenter bees (genus Xylocopa) as example, and 4) a large-scale phylogenomic analysis of the evolution and diversification of aculeate Hymenoptera (all stinging wasps).
The evolution of ant communities in Madagascar: Another main research project investigates and compares the phylogenetic structure of both canopy and leaf litter ant communities across different forest habitat types in Madagascar, in order to infer the environmental and biological processes (niche-related vs competition) responsible for these species assemblages. I am particularly interested in whether canopy and leaf litter ant communities differ in phylogenetic diversity, whether they show the imprint of being modeled by different factors, and whether these patterns deviate between forest types. A first study, comparing a dry and a humid forest habitat, suggested for example that Malagasy ants first adapted to humid habitats and then consecutively to dry forest habitats. This research also showed that niche-related processes were responsible in structuring the humid forest communities, whereas competition may be more prevalent between ants of the dry forest communities. To continue this recent small-scale project, I am planning a broad investigation of the evolution of micro-endemism and species diversification of ants in Madagascar on an island-wide scale based on a phylogenomic data set, testing recent hypotheses for abiotic drivers of speciation in Madagascar and inferring the role of biotic factors in community assembly.
Ant diversity of Malagasy forest canopies: I am planning to initiate, pending further funding, a systematic survey of the arboreal (i.e. tree-nesting) ant fauna in Madagascar, in collaboration with Brian Fisher of the California Academy of Sciences. Ants are a diverse and ecologically important group among the arthropods and form a significant component of tropical canopy communities. In Madagascar, ants have been a major focus of ground-based surveys and the subsequent taxonomic and distribution studies and present an excellent proxy to investigate canopy arthropod diversity. Main goals of this project are to 1) assess and compare the diversity and species assemblage of arboreal and ground ant communities between major forest types in Madagascar, 2) identify top-priority sites in Madagascar for further canopy research, and 3) promote the education of Malagasy researchers in canopy research and create in-country resources for further canopy studies in Madagascar. Recently I have conducted a pilot field study for this project at two sites in Madagascar, sponsored by National Geographic, and am now in the process of analyzing the data collected during this survey.
The systematics, evolution and taxonomy of Crematogaster ants. My dissertation research focused on estimating a broad-scale, molecular framework phylogeny of the acrobat ants, genus Crematogaster. These ants occur worldwide, and are diverse and ubiquitous especially in forest habitats in the tropics and subtropics. Reconstructing a phylogeny delineating the major clades within this species-rich genus enabled me to shed light on its evolution and biogeographic history. I hereby particularly concentrated on the biogeography and evolution of Crematogaster in Madagascar. As part of my dissertation research, I was also able to improve the taxonomy of Malagasy Crematogaster through resolving species boundaries with a combination of molecular and morphological characters, additionally informed by distribution data. Much taxonomic work remains to be done on Crematogaster in other geographic regions, therefore these ants will remain the focus of my future taxonomic projects.
Blaimer, B.B., Lloyd, M., Gillory, W., Brady, S.G. 2016. Sequence capture and phylogenetic utility of genomic ultraconserved elements obtained from pinned insect specimens. PLoS ONE, 11(8): e0161531. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161531
Blaimer, B.B., LaPolla, J.S., Branstetter, M.G., Lloyd, M.W., Brady, S.G. 2016. Phylogenomics, biogeography and diversification of obligate mealybug-tending ants in the genus Acropyga. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 102: 20–29. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2016.05.030
Ward, P.S., Blaimer, B.B. & Fisher, B.L. (2016) A revised phylogenetic classification of the ant subfamily Formicinae (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), with resurrection of the genera Colobopsis and Dinomyrmex. Zootaxa, 4072: 343–357.
Blaimer, B.B., Brady, S.G., Schultz, T.R., Lloyd, M.W. & Ward, P.S. (2015b) Phylogenomic methods outperform traditional multi-locus approaches in resolving deep evolutionary history: a case study of formicine ants. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 15: 271. doi: 10.1186/s12862-015-0552-5
Blaimer, B.B., Brady, S.G., Schultz, T.R. & Fisher, B.L. (2015a) Functional and phylogenetic approaches reveal the evolution of diversity in a hyper diverse biota. Ecography, 38: 901–912. doi:10.1111/ecog.01370
Blaimer, B.B. & Fisher, B.L. (2013b) Taxonomy of the Crematogaster degeeri-species-assemblage in the Malagasy region (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). European Journal of Taxonomy 51: 1-64.
Blaimer, B.B. and Fisher, Brian L. 2013. How much variation can one ant species hold? Species delimitation in the Crematogaster kelleri-group in Madagascar. Plos One, 8(7): e68082 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068082
Blaimer, B.B. (2012d) Acrobat ants go global: origin, evolution and systematics of the genus Crematogaster (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 65: 421-436.
Blaimer, B.B. (2012c) A subgeneric revision of Crematogaster and discussion of regional species-groups (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Zootaxa, 3482: 47-67.
Blaimer, B.B. (2012b) Taxonomy and species-groups of the subgenus Crematogaster (Orthocrema) in the Malagasy region (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Zookeys, 199: 23-70.
Blaimer, B.B. (2012a) Untangling complex morphological variation: Taxonomic revision of the subgenus Crematogaster (Oxygyne) in Madagascar, with insight into the evolution and biogeography of these enigmatic ants. Systematic Entomology, 37: 240-260.
Blaimer, B.B. (2010) Taxonomy and natural history of the Crematogaster (Decacrema)-group (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in Madagascar. Zootaxa, 2714, 1–39.
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