PEET: NSF Sponsored Graduate Research Traineeship in Systematics

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In recognition of the importance of systematic biology, the National Science Foundation created a special competition in systematic biology - Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy (PEET) - to support the study of poorly known groups of organism s and to train a new generation of systematists. Collaboration between GWU and the National Museum of Natural History resulted in two separate PEET awards and we are delighted to be able to offer graduate student research fellowships (including stipend, tuition, research supplies and research field travel funds for five years each) to four students wishing to earn PhDs in systematics. Two students work in conjunction with Dr. Jon Norenburg (Smithsonian Institution) and Dr. Diana Lipscomb (GWU ) on the systematics of the phylum Nemertea, while five others work jointly with Dr. Gustavo Hormiga (GWU) and Dr. Jon Coddington (Smithsonian Institution) on the systematics of spiders.

For our PEET and other systematics colleagues D. Lipscomb created a basic guide to phylogenetic analysis (using cladistics).

Nemertean Systematics

Nemerteans are common and important predatory worms occupying a wide range of aquatic habitats. Their biological attributes are of general and pharmacological interest, and they appear to be an important link in the evolution of animals. Yet they are widely ignored because identification is extremely difficult. This is because there are few biologists trained in the variety of techniques needed to accurately study these organisms. With funds from the PEET award we are training two students, Sveta Maslakova and Megan Schwartz, in modern theory and practice of systematics and in morphological and macromolecular techniques that will be used to study and answer fundamental questions about the kinds, distribution and evolution of these remarkable animals.

Spider Systematics

Spiders are important, but poorly studied and understood organisms (Araneae is the sixth or seventh largest animal order in terms of species described or anticipated). On every major land mass (except, perhaps, Antarctica), a crucial component of most terrestrial ecosystems throughout the world, spiders undoubtedly have a direct impact on human affairs. Nevertheless, no araneologist can easily identify species of the dominant Nearctic spider family (Linyphiidae), because basic taxonomic research and manuals are lacking. The taxonomy of widow spiders (Theridiidae: Latrodectus) and Ctenidae is similar, even though both groups inflict fatal bites. Although the spectacular diversity of spider silks and web architectures is of obvious interest to material scientists, fewer than a dozen species in one or two closely related families have been well-studied.

About 36,000 valid described species in 3,050 genera and 106 families have been described. The estimated total extant world spider species can only be guessed at; it has been suggested that up to 170,000 species could exist. Clearly, most spider diversity remains undiscovered and undescribed. The phylogenetic structure of most spider groups is also very poorly known. The majority of taxonomic publications are isolated species descriptions that evade consideration of genera, tribes, subfamilies, or co-ordination with other regions; the average quality of the descriptions is mediocre. Such progress at the species level may be relatively easy and quick, but by its very nature it creates an urgent need for synthetic, comprehensive, explicitly quantitative, phylogenetic research at generic levels and above. The larger taxon, the greater the need. No credible higher taxonomy in the largest families (e.g. Linyphiidae, Theridiidae, Salticidae) makes for more monotypic genera, and many, large undiagnosable, poly- or paraphyletic "garbage" genera. Because higher taxonomy is rate-limiting, well-illustrated, cladistic treatments at the generic, tribal, and familial levels in spiders are the most efficient way to advance systematic araneology and to facilitate and coordinate excellence at the alpha level. Also, evolutionary biology increasingly relies on correct phylogenetic context. Cladograms of higher taxa supply that framework and therefore have higher impact on biology in general.

This NSF-PEET sponsored project will train three Ph.D. students in monographic research and systematics. These students will publish state of the art monographs on three groups of araneoid spiders (Araneae, Araneoidea): Neotropical Erigoninae (Linyphiidae), Anelosimus (Theridiidae) and Nephilinae (Tetragnathidae). The projects address critical topics in spider taxonomy and biology.