Evolutionary Genetics in Non-Model Systems

Adaptive coat color variation in rock pocket mice

Rock pocket mice are found in rocky areas throughout the deserts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Most rock pocket mice live on light colored rocks and have light dorsal pelage, but mice found on lava flows are typically melanic, with dark dorsal pelage that closely matches the color of the basalt rock. Four nucleotide changes in the coding exon of Mc1r were shown to be in perfect association with coat color variation in Pinacates, AZ. Rock pocket mice have become a textbook example for adaptation. In work while at the University of Arizona with Dr. Michael Nachman, we identified Agouti as the gene underlying variation in coat color in two other populations. Our data also suggest that the specific genetic basis of dark coloration in these populations differ. Therefore, it is likely that there are at least three independent origins of adaptive melanism in rock pocket mice (Phifer-Rixey et al. in prep). This work highlights the complexity of a seemingly simple example of adaptation.

Organisms residing in the rocky intertidal regions of the northern Atlantic Ocean live life on the edge, experiencing significant (but predictable variation) in conditions. Sunlight, temperature, humidity, wave exposure, and wind change daily with the tides and seasonally. On top of that, conditions also vary greatly over geographic scale, with cooler conditions at more coastal locations and at higher latitudes. My dissertation research at the University of Pennsylvania with Dr. Paul Schmidt focused on understanding how this environmental variation might affect organisms that live throughout the rocky intertidal. The flat periwinkle snail is colorful and is found throughout the Gulf of Maine. We found that yellow and other light color snails increase in frequency in locations that are hotter and more protected from waves both on the coast and in two river systems. We also found that light snails are cooler and more likely to survive exposure to hot dry conditions which might contribute to their greater numbers in thermally stressful locations.

We are working with collaborators at Monmouth University to investigate genetics in fish found locally including striped bass. Dr Phifer-Rixey was recently awarded the Monmouth Univeristy Faculty Fellowship to expand genetic resources for our Marine and Environmental Biology Program.  The first phase will build up molecular protocols for students to work with eDNA and pipelines for students to analyze metabarcoding data.  The goal of the project is to use eDNA to learn about our local waterways and to help students develop critical skills.