A new Joshua tree study is just out in the current issue of New Phytologist, presenting an analysis of the environments occupied by the two different types of Joshua tree. The results demonstrate that the two tree types mostly grow in similar climatic conditions [PDF], which suggests that coevolution with its pollinators, not natural selection from differing environments, is responsible for the evolution of the two different tree types.
The Pellmyr Lab has been studying the two types of Joshua tree, which are pollinated by two separate, highly specialized moths, for several years now. Previous papers have shown that the two types of Joshua tree, first described in the 1970s based only on their vegetative features, are most strongly differentiated by the shape of their flowers [$-a]; and that, although the two moths are separate species, the two tree types are not fully genetically differentiated [PDF].
Hey, those Joshua trees look kinda
Photo by jby.
The latest paper is a chapter from the dissertation of Will Godsoe, who just received his doctorate last week. It presents an analysis that sidesteps a fundamental problem with studying long-lived, specialized organisms — they’re hard use in fully controlled experiments. To determine whether the two types of Joshua tree really evolved as a result of coevolution with their pollinators, we’d like to be able to eliminate the alternative hypothesis that the two types evolved in response to different environmental conditions. Except for a small contact zone in central Nevada, each tree type occurs in a different part of the Mojave desert, and the two regions do have some broad-scale differences in when they receive precipitation.
Ideally, to determine whether two plants have different environmental needs, you just perform an experimental transplant, growing each plant in the other’s environment to see whether it fares as well as it does at home. This isn’t really possible with Joshua trees, which are pretty tricky to sprout from seeds (I’ve tried), and which, in any event, take something like twenty years to mature. So Will proposed to use niche modeling methods instead. Niche models are statistical descriptions of environments where an organism is known to live, often used to predict where it could live. To build niche models for each type of Joshua tree, Will assembled location data we’d collected over several field seasons in the Mojave, then spent another field trip driving around the desert some more to fill in the gaps — he wanted locations where Joshua trees were definitely growing and where they definitely weren’t, to fully “inform” the models.
Using the location data, it was possible to determine what kinds of climates each Joshua tree type tended to occupy by cross-referencing with existing climate databases, then fitting statistical models to the results. The models produced for each tree type could then be compared — and, for the most part, they’re similar. That is, if you collected seeds from one tree type, planted them where the other type grows, and waited around for a few decades to check the result, you’d probably find that it grew as well as it did in its home range.
So, if differing climates don’t explain the origin of the two types of Joshua tree, does that leave no other possibility but the pollinating moths? Not exactly — there are lots of environmental variables that weren’t available for Will’s niche models, for instance, or there could be a third, completely unknown factor. But this does make coevolution with the moths a more plausible explanation. In light of some of our very latest results — which should be going to press fairly soon — coevolution is looking like a better and better possibility.
Godsoe, W., Strand, E., Smith, C.I., Yoder, J.B., Esque, T., & Pellmyr, O. (2009). Divergence in an obligate mutualism is not explained by divergent climatic factors New Phytologist, 183 (3), 589-99 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.02942.x
Godsoe, W., Yoder, J.B., Smith, C.I., & Pellmyr, O. (2008). Coevolution and divergence in the Joshua tree/yucca moth mutualism The American Naturalist, 171 (6), 816-23 DOI: 10.1086/587757
Smith, C.I., Godsoe, W., Tank, S., Yoder, J.B., & Pellmyr, O. (2008). Distinguishing coevolution from covicariance in an obligate pollination mutualism: Asynchronous divergence in Joshua tree and its pollinators. Evolution, 62 (10), 2676-87 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00500.x