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Biology Alumnus Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Grant

We are pleased to report that Biology alumnus Daniel N. Proud was recently awarded a prestigious NSF CAREER grant "CAREER: Investigating Biogeographic Hypotheses and Drivers of Diversification in Neotropical Harvestmen (Opiliones: Laniatores) Using Ultraconserved Elements". Dan received his Ph.D. in Biology from UL Lafayette under the direction of Bruce E Felgenhauer who remarked that "He was a great student and I am very proud of him!" In an email to Felgenhauer, Dan indicated his appreciation with the remark "Thank you for providing the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. that has led me to where I am today!"

Dan is an assistant professor in the Biology Department at Moravian University. Visit his lab web page to learn more about his research.

Below please find an extract from the 30 November 2023 Moravian University News site article by Claire Kowalchik describing Daniel Proud's $888,044 NSF Grant and how it advances science and student experience at Moravian University.

On a dark night in the Costa Rican rainforest, Assistant Professor of Biology Daniel Proud and students from his research lab don headlamps and search for and collect Opiliones, aka harvestmen. You may know them as daddy longlegs, so named for their needle-slender appendages that are exceedingly long relative to their bodies. Harvestmen are nocturnal. The larger ones can be spotted crawling on the ground, rocks, and trees. To collect the smaller harvestmen, Proud and his student-researchers scoop up, sift, and search through leaf litter from the forest floor.

Advancing Scientific Understanding

The collection of specimens is part of a five-year research project made possible by an $888,044 CAREER grant awarded to Proud by the National Science Foundation Division of Environmental Biology (NSF-DEB award # 2337605). The project is titled “CAREER: Investigating Biogeographic Hypotheses and Drivers of Diversification in Neotropical Harvestmen (Opiliones: Laniatores) Using Ultraconserved Elements.” The aim of the research is to advance understanding of how species diversity has been shaped by evolutionary processes linked to geological and climatic histories. Researchers expect to discover and describe dozens of new species.

Photo caption. Eupoecilaema magnum, a harvestman in the family Cosmetidae from the Camaquiri Conservation Initiative field station in Costa Rica.)

Okay, but why study daddy longlegs? Proud explains: They are diverse—there are more than 6,500 species known to science, and many more waiting to be discovered. They have ancient origins and are found around the world. Despite their global distribution, they don’t travel very far, and so they tend to be unique to a region.

Proud’s student-researchers will work with advanced technology to generate and analyze genetic data for the harvestmen they’ve collected and create a phylogenetic tree that illustrates the evolutionary relationships of Opiliones. The phylogenetic tree can then be time-calibrated to dig deeper into their evolutionary history. “We know that genes change at certain rates, and we can use that information to estimate how long ago two species diverged,” says Proud. Fossils also help to calibrate the tree. Then by looking at the geological and geographical history at the time two species diverged, researchers can identify the likely cause—a geological shift, a climatic change, a long-distance dispersal, or another major event. “For example,” says Proud, “There’s a mountain range that cuts through Costa Rica into Panama, and I’ve never seen a species of harvestman that occurs on both the east and west sides of the range. Still, the species on the east and west might be closely related. Perhaps the formation of the mountains separated a single species on both sides, and after living apart for so long—maybe a million years—two new species formed in their different environments.” The geology of Central America and the Caribbean islands offers a rich location for this research. For example, the formation of the Panamanian isthmus, the land bridge that connects North and South America, was a geological event that had a huge impact on Earth’s climate and environment, which in turn likely affected species diversification. And, approximately 34 million years ago, some Caribbean islands may have been connected to South America by the Greater Antilles-Aves Ridge land bridge (GAARlandia).

Please visit the Moravian University News site and read the rest of Claire Kowalchik's story.