My research addresses two broad and interrelated questions: 1) What makes species and populations vulnerable to anthropogenic climate change? and 2) How do organisms evolve in response to climatic variation? I investigate these questions across a range of spatial and temporal scales while applying a wide range of approaches, including organismal and molecular physiology, behavior, field ecology, and experimental biology. Details about some specific projects are below.
Investigating the consequences of global change at the scale of the organism
Although anthropogenic warming is a global phenomenon, organisms experience it at a local level. Therefore, investigations of climate change vulnerability are likely to benefit from measurements of environmental conditions taken at the scale at which organisms experience them. I integrated temperature-dependent physiology with biophysical estimates of thermal microhabitats to demonstrate geographic variation in vulnerability to warming in the tropical lizard Anolis cristatellus (Gunderson & Leal 2012). For my postdoc, I am using conceptually similar approaches to understand climate change consequences in intertidal Porcelain crabs on the California coast while integrating interactions between congeneric competitors.
physiological plasticity as a buffer from global warming
Phenotypic plasticity (non-genetic change in traits) could be an important means by which organisms buffer themselves from climate change, but this depends greatly on how plastic organisms are and how variation in plasticity is distributed among taxa. During my postdoc, I conducted a meta-analysis to determine magnitudes of, and global patterns of variation in, cold and heat tolerance plasticity among ectotherms. One of the primary results was that ectotherms have relatively low plasticity in heat tolerance, and therefore plasticity may have limited potential to buffer ectotherms from global change (Gunderson & Stillman 2015). In a follow-up analysis, we have calculated the degree to which tolerance plasticity reduces overheating probabilities for terrestrial ectotherm taxa based on measurements of natural thermal variability in their environments (Gunderson, Dillon & Stillman, in press).
Functional Analyses of Climatic Niche evolution During adaptive radiation
Adaptive radiation is a process that leads to the coexistence of multiple closely related but ecologically distinct species. Most textbook examples of animal adaptive radiations focus on the evolution of morphological traits, although physiological evolution can potentially be just as important. I am investigating how physiological evolution under different climatic regimes has contributed to the radiations of Caribbean Anolis lizards (Gunderson et al. 2011; Leal and Gunderson 2012). A key result so far is that, across Puerto Rico and Jamaica, divergence in thermal physiology has happened repeatedly and facilitates species coexistence (Gunderson, Mahler & Leal, under review; get preprint here).
How temperature shapes The Behavior of ectotherms
Behavior plays a major role in the responses of animals to climatic conditions generally and global change specifically. I have conducted a number of studies on behavioral responses to temperature, including the potential for behavioral thermoregulation to buffer populations from warming (Gunderson and Leal 2012), field tests of models of temperature-dependent activity (Gunderson and Leal 2015), and the development of a framework for investigating the effects of temperature on behavior (Gunderson and Leal 2016). During my postdoc, I am investigating the ecological consequences of within-population variation in behavioral responses to temperature in intertidal porcelain crabs.
Feather-degrading bacteria and avian coloration
For my Master’s degree I studied feather-degrading bacteria, microbes that live in the plumage of wild birds and can break down the keratin molecules that make up feathers (Gunderson 2008). One project focused on how feather-degrading bacteria influence the appearance of structural (non-pigmentary) plumage coloration in Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis, Gunderson et al. 2009). Another project investigated whether or not feathers colored with melanin pigments are more resistant to bacterial damage than unpigmented (white) feathers (Gunderson et al. 2008).