CAREER: Fossil Amber Insight Into Macroevolutionary Dynamics in an Ecologically Diverse Island System

Project: Research project

Project Details


This award is funded in whole or in part under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (Public Law 117-2).

Fossils provide direct evidence for the processes that shape ecosystems and biodiversity over long periods of history on earth. In particular, the fossil record has helped us better understand past extinctions and ecological changes, which are increasingly relevant to a rapidly changing planet. At the same time, the fossil record is highly incomplete, and it can be difficult to unify our understanding of ecosystems across long periods of time spanning millions of years. This project seeks to synthesize information from data-rich fossil and modern communities in a unique island system to reveal broadly applicable patterns and processes that are responsible for maintaining biodiversity. This research focuses on ants and ant communities of Hispaniola, which are both preserved in high detail in the amber fossil record and highly diverse on the island today. This synthesis will address key questions including: Why do some organisms go extinct while others persist over long periods of time? How predictable are changes in ecosystems and communities across long periods of time? How quickly do these changes occur? Knowledge and data resulting from this research will be used in the creation of K-12 educational materials, which will be developed through interdisciplinary collaborations between industrial design and biology undergraduates. Educational products will be widely disseminated in schools and museums in the U.S. and Dominican Republic. The project will produce biological, ecological, and analytical resources for researchers locally and worldwide. It will provide research and educational opportunities at the high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels with inclusive mentoring.

The project will build a comprehensive dataset for the entire fossil and extant ant communities on Hispaniola, with a total of ~250 species collectively. Project activities will integrate taxonomy, systematics, morphology, high-resolution CT-scan imaging, genome-scale molecular data, phylogenetics, supervised machine learning, and phylogenetic comparative methods. Research is specimen-based and will utilize and contribute to multiple museum collections. Data derived from fossil and extant taxa will be used to test interrelated hypotheses related to extinction selectivity, faunal turnover, and the role of macroevolutionary processes in community assembly. All project products, including datasets, will be made publicly available, and open-access resources will be produced for future researchers. Educational products from the project comprise tactile lesson plans and active learning projects that will reach underserved communities and encourage participation in STEM career pathways. This inclusion work will be further supported through a high school to postdoctoral mentoring pipeline with the goal of recruiting and retaining diverse students in biological research.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date9/1/228/31/27


  • National Science Foundation: $414,651.00


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