Featured Stories

Biology Professor Bruce Robertson Creates Model for Studying Evolutionary Traps

Bruce Robertson (far left) finishes up an experiment on evolutionary traps with
a team of students during the Bard Summer Research Institute in June 2013.
A recent paper coauthored by Bard biology faculty member Bruce Robertson is currently one of the most popular publications in his field. "Ecological novelty and the emergence of evolutionary traps" (published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution) is among the Top 25 Hottest Articles in earth and planetary science on Science Direct. Professor Robertson's research examines evolutionary traits that lead animals into danger when they encounter environments altered by human activity. He has coauthored another paper recently that employs the evolutionary trap concept as a framework to develop new cancer treatments. It was published this month in Clinical Cancer Research and will be featured next week in an article from Nautilus Magazine.

The goal of Professor Robertson's research is to create a model for studying evolutionary traps. "While awareness of, and interest in, the phenomenon of evolutionary traps has skyrocketed amongst ecologists, evolutionary biologists and conservationists, our understanding of how they work, and so how to eliminate them, is almost entirely based on isolated case studies,” he says. “We need a model system that will allow us to better grasp the mechanisms by which traps operate … so that we can prevent traps from occurring in the future, and reverse those that have already occurred."

Professor Robertson has found such a system. His research indicates that polarized light pollution negatively impacts the reproduction of aquatic insects. Human-made objects like cars, dark buildings, asphalt, and solar panels can mimic bodies of water, so some insects will lay their eggs on those objects. These traps can lead to a sudden decline in insect populations, which can have disastrous ripple effects for other organisms. For example, they can negatively impact fish populations that rely on aquatic insects for food.

Bard College students have assisted Professor Robertson in his research, conducting experiments in the Bard labs and fieldwork in the surrounding Hudson Valley ecosystem. Students have been "critically helpful in the development of my field research program on evolutionary traps here,” he notes. “In fact, the students I hired actually identified a weakness in my original study design and helped identify a new, more powerful version that we ultimately used."

Professor Robertson has found that the area around Bard and south into New York City is an ideal laboratory for studying these effects, and observing if and how insects are evolving new behaviors in response to light pollution. "I think Bard students will play an integral role in answering these critical questions," he says, "and so in helping to be able to maintain the natural systems that support us."

Post Date: 12-10-2013