South America: the world's largest evolutionary experiment
Van Leeuwenhoek Lecture on BioScience.
Alexandre Antonelli (born in Brazil) is full professor in Systematics and Biodiversity at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg; he is scientific curator at Gothenburg Botanical Garden. He obtained his PhD in Gothenburg (2009) and has been a post-doc at the Institute of Systematic Botany, University of Zurich.
He is an evolutionary biologist with practical and theoretical experience ranging from fieldwork in the tropics to molecular based laboratory and analytical techniques. His research is focused on the origins and evolution of tropical America's outstanding biodiversity. He is becoming increasingly interested in evaluating how past responses to climate changes may improve our predictions of species losses under Global Warming, and how this knowledge can be used for conservation.
His group attempts to integrate data and methodologies from molecular phylogenetics, palaeobiology, biogeography, climatic modelling, bioinformatics and ecology.
South America is, by far, the most biologically diverse continent:nowhere else on Earth are there so many species and ecosystems. What has led to this extreme accumulation of biodiversity, as compared to other regions and continents? Scientists have long attempted to find a single, overarching theory that would explain the origins and evolution of South American biodiversity. Instead, we are finding a complex, intertwined number of factors leading to differences in speciation, extinction, and migrations - the three processes that ultimately determine the diversity of any system. recent studies show that biodiversity is regulated by multiple and concomitant driving forces, which include changes in the physical environment (such as temperature, precipitation, and sudden events such as mass-extinctions) as well as biotic interactions among species (such as competition, pollination, predation, and mutualisms). The main challenge now is to tease apart the relative contribution of these forces in generating, and later maintaining, biodiversity. To achieve this goal, we need a hitherto unrealiized synergy of scientists, data, and techniques from disparate fields of sciences. Thanks to unique nature and geological history of South America, this continent arguably constitutes the world's best experiment for studying the past, present and future of biodiversity.