Petridish Spotlight: Fund This Project and Help Discover How Heavy Metals Affect Evolution

Living on Cyprus’s serpentine soil, which is rich in heavy metals, set the island’s insects on a unique evolutionary path.

By Marc Srour|Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Petridish.org is a crowd-funding site for science. Here, we're featuring one of our favorite Petridish projects. To fund this project, or to see more projects, go to Petridish.org.

Imagine you, your family, and your neighbours took a trip and got stuck on an island with no way of escaping. The island turns out to be acceptable, with lots of shelter and plants for food, so it's no big deal. Not having any geologists in your isolated group, you also don't realise that the soil all your food is growing on contains high levels of toxic heavy metals. After several tens or hundreds of generations, your descendants are no longer of the same species.

In a nutshell, the above story summarises how the unique endemic insects of Cyprus evolved. The serpentine soil, which is rich in heavy metals, comes from the geology of the Troodos Mountains and is host to an array of endemic plants. Three of these plants are also found in other areas of the island with regular soils.

In this project, I will be investigating the insect communities associated with these plants, contrasting those growing on the serpentine soil with those growing on regular soils. This will be supplemented by analysis of heavy metal concentrations in the insects, to see whether they accumulate at each step of the food web.

Why this research matters



Marc Srour/Petridish

I studied geosciences at the University of Bonn, Germany. Having always been a biologist at heart, I specialised in palaeontology, while attending as many zoology, ecology, and evolution lectures as I could without getting kicked out for not being officially enrolled. My particular passion is systematics and phylogenetics (the tree of life and how to build it), and my animal group of choice is the arthropods (insects, crustaceans, spiders, milli- and centipedes...). Itching to get out of studying so I could finally do research, I moved back to my home country of Cyprus, knowing that it is an unresearched treasure chest of exciting discoveries.

As an island, Cyprus is already a "test tube" for evolution. Coupled with the diversity of habitats on the island, this has led to a sizeable number of endemic species. Studies on the origin of new species on islands are a dime a dozen. In this project, I want to introduce a new variable: geology, and its effect on mutation rates.

If geology does have an effect, this will be fertile ground for more advanced research that will have implications for a very active debate in current evolutionary biology, the bridge between micro- and macroevolution: how changes in the genome lead to changes at the organismic level. The speed at which the organismic-level changes happen can also be investigated, bringing insight into the tempo of evolution.

If geology doesn’t have an effect, then an alternative research program can be started to investigate the physiological mechanisms preventing the heavy metals from affecting the biology of the plants and insects.



On a more general note, the insects of Cyprus are very underresearched. A couple of groups have been taxonomically studied, but the bulk of the fauna remains unexplored. Even without the specific research question, any systematic sampling is sure to collect species new to science and a wealth of new ecological data.

Potential discoveries
I will look for evidence for heavy metal bioaccumulation up a food web, leading to faster mutation rates and, eventually, to speciation. In addition, my sampling may find unique, newly documented plant-insect relations as well as new species.

I am interested in identifying the indigenous Cypriot insects—the ones that migrated here before humans came and destroyed the island's forests and spread synanthropic invaders. I eventually hope to be able to directly compare the endemic fauna of Cyprus with those of the Middle East, Northeast Africa and Turkey, in order to identify the sister species most closely related to the Cypriot species (and which hence share a last common ancestor), or even more spectacularly, identify the parent species from which the Cypriot endemics evolved from (if it hasn't gone extinct).

What your money can do
I live in Nicosia, the capital in the center of the island. The fuel cost for traveling to the sampling sites multiple times will be paid for by your money; my car is very economical, so this will be a negligible part of the budget. The chemical analyses will be paid for by your money; most will be done by me in a university lab, but some will need the work of a professional chemist. While my collecting ethics demand that I only collect the bare minimum needed for research, a large amount of insects samples will nonetheless be generated in this research. These will have to be preserved in alcohol, or pinned, or on microscope slides. The materials necessary—from vials, to preservatives, to pins, to wood for insect boxes—will be bought from your money.

The rest of the money will be spent on equipment and supplies for traps and sampling. It's an embarrassing fact that I do my active sampling with a swimming pool net. The money will be used to buy textile suitable for a proper net; a UV lamp and a car battery to operate it on will be bought to enable night-time sampling; mesh and supports for a Malaise trap; chemicals suitable to use as baits.

Excess money will be used to upgrade my photographic and stereoscope equipment. Potential purchases include a tripod; a macro lens to replace the extension tubes I currently use; a digital camera adapter for a stereoscope, to allow very high quality close-ups; a camera lucida for a stereoscope to help with drawing. Notice that the latter three are general purchases, and they will benefit my other projects. In effect, your money will be supporting all my entomological research.



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