NSFDEB-NERC: The evolution of visual systems during major life history transitions in frogs

Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Life Sciences

Abstract

How organisms interact with their environment depends on how they perceive external stimuli through, for example, tactile, chemical, electrical, magnetic, and visual cues. Animal sensory systems detect environmental variables that ultimately elicit behavioral responses to pursue prey, avoid predators, regulate homeostasis, and find mates. These behavioral responses depend on sensory systems that are adapted to particular environments and can thus have important consequences on the distribution of species (sensory ecology), which in turn can promote evolutionary divergence among populations and species. Because sensory systems play vital roles in multiple aspects of animals' lives, analyzing the evolution of sensory systems is fundamental to understanding the diversification of any particular animal group. Our project investigates how the visual system has evolved during the history of frogs, and particularly with respect to the many evolutionary changes in ecology and life history that frogs have undergone. For example, we will investigate how vision was influenced by and may have influenced the evolution of bright or sexually dimorphic colour patterns, and the evolution of burrowing and of different kinds of adult and tadpole lifestyles. Frogs are a major group, with > 6,600 living species that have evolved over >250 million years, yet they have barely been included in previous studies of vision of vertebrates. Our project will substantially advance knowledge of both vertebrate vision and frog evolution.

The broader impacts of this project can be summarised in four categories: international collaboration, training, science communication, and museum exhibitions. First, this project is a collaboration between two of the world's best known and prolific natural history museums - the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C., USA and the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) - a joint effort of its personnel that makes the goals of this project not just possible, but feasible. Furthermore, our team of collaborators (both frog experts and vision biologists) from Gabon, Brazil, the UK, the USA, Ecuador, and Australia forms the essential network and expert insight that allows us to address our specific aims and questions. Second, this project will train a postdoctoral researcher at the NHM and provide training opportunities for Masters and undergraduate students that study within the NHM Herpetology Research Group (where the project is based). Third, a focus on communicating the results of our research to a public audience is central to our proposal - via public engagement events at the NHM. Finally, our research products will be made available to the public via incorporation into the upcoming NHM temporary exhibition "Life in the Dark" (scheduled October 2018) - where an updated understanding of how frogs see at night will be presented.

Planned Impact

Our proposed research project has been designed to fill in a major gap in the understanding of vertebrate visual system diversity and evolution. A project in pure biological research, we will generate results of interest to a wide range of academics, including those working on frogs, molecular biology and vision. In addition to answering fundamental questions about vision (e.g. the molecular basis) the data and analytical results will be of wider and direct value to vision research academics with the potential to change our current understanding of, for example, nocturnal colour vision. Such a fundamental understanding about phenotypic diversity, its molecular underpinnings and evolution has societal value because it is medically relevant to human vision, given that medicine is now underpinned by molecular biological studies.

Vertebrate vision is generally well studied and understood, but most knowledge comes from detailed studies of mammals, birds and fish. Amphibians have been greatly overlooked thus far, especially considering their evolutionary age and extant phylogenetic, morphological and ecological diversity. Given the relatively unexplored field of frog vision research, we expect to make several noteworthy discoveries using the technologies and methods we propose. To disseminate these discoveries effectively, we will communicate findings via peer-reviewed publications in international journals, present multiple talks at international conferences, and hold a workshop with opportunities for UK stakeholders to attend. All data collected during the project will be deposited in public repositories (e.g. NCBI for genomic data, NHM Data Portal for specimen data).

We will also plan to engage with the national and international media to broaden the impact of our findings to a wide public audience. The proposed topic offers exceptional promise for public dissemination because frogs are awe-inspiring and captivating animals and because vision plays an important role in communicating evolutionary biology. We have the infrastructure and plan to ensure that our project exploits its potential impact on the public sector via public engagement in science (PES) activities that will reach and inform non-academic audiences. The NHM lead Investigators are both experienced in PES, having written popular science books and online content and given interactive presentations and workshops with the general public and non-specialists. The NHM Press Office is experienced with preparing press-releases for novel findings and important scientific publications. The NHM provides an informal learning opportunity for museum visitors via the "Nature Live" seminar series. PI Streicher and Co-I Gower are regularly featured in these talks, and we have budgeted to develop a frog vision Nature Live to coincide with the herein proposed research. The NHM receives millions of visitors a year in person, and we will communicate our project to this audience.

The proposed research represents mostly new collaborations among researchers with expertise in frogs, molecular biology and visual physiology and ecology, and we expect this project to be the first of several collaborative projects. The lead applicants will benefit from the development of novel angles to their research. The lead applicants are experienced in working on and managing grants that employ potdoctoral research assistants, and they have conducted and disseminated high quality research. An important additional impact of the proposed research is the training of an early career scientist who will gain experience and advanced skills in a range of molecular biological and phenotypic methods. The PDRA will attend one major scientific conference for each of the three years they are employed on the project. Training for presentations will be available to the PDRA through the NHM's Organisational Development group (Human Resources Department) and Department of Life Sciences seminar series.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description We have used the initiation of the project for public engagement via Media and Natural History Museum events.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

 
Description NSF-NERC Collaborative Team 
Organisation Smithsonian Institution
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The Natural History Museum staff associated with this award are handling the work package on the evolution of burrowing frog vision, fieldwork in South America and hosting a postdoctoral scholar.
Collaborator Contribution The U.S. collaborators associated with this award are handling the work package on the evolution of sexual dichromatism, fieldwork in Africa and Australia and hosting a postdoctoral scholar.
Impact Outputs will be listed as they become available.
Start Year 2017
 
Description NSF-NERC Collaborative Team 
Organisation University of Texas at Arlington
Department Department of Biology
PI Contribution The Natural History Museum staff associated with this award are handling the work package on the evolution of burrowing frog vision, fieldwork in South America and hosting a postdoctoral scholar.
Collaborator Contribution The U.S. collaborators associated with this award are handling the work package on the evolution of sexual dichromatism, fieldwork in Africa and Australia and hosting a postdoctoral scholar.
Impact Outputs will be listed as they become available.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Display at European Researchers Night (H2020) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In September of 2018...
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description How do frogs see in the dark? Video produced by Street Films and NHM 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This video was produced as a feature in the NHM temporary exhibition "Life in the Dark" which was open to the public in 2018-2019. The exhibition was visited by ~106,000 guests during its run. The video was made available on the NHM's YouTube channel early in 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=HC35u7IOXOs
 
Description Interview with BBC Coventry and Warwickshire 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I was interviewed on a morning chat show to answer questions about animal vision (specifically in the dark). 25th August 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Life in the Dark museum exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Life in the Dark was open to the public from 13 July 2018 until 24 February 2019.

The exhibition explored the creatures that thrive at night, in pitch-black caves and deep in the sea.

Visitors could enter the worlds of nocturnal animals to discover how they find their way around their environment, hunt, mate and evade predators.

Exhibition highlights:

Learn about frog vision.
Encounter live Mexican blind cave fish that don't need eyes to navigate.
See yourself through the eyes of a cave boa.
Get hands-on with familiar nocturnal animals.
Smell the distinctive aromas of the bat cave.
Enjoy breathtaking live footage from the deep sea.
Hear a symphony of nocturnal sounds and identify the creatures that make them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/life-in-the-dark.html
 
Description Meeting with US (NSF) collaborators at the Natural History Museum, UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact We met in 7th November to 13th November at the Natural History Museum. We discussed preliminary data and made plans for 2019-2020. These plans included developing a strategy for disseminating information in the form of peer-reviewed publications.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Meeting with US (NSF) collaborators at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact We met with US PIs to discuss upcoming goals for fieldwork in 2018-2019. We also established standard operating procedures for field and lab methods and drafted the job descriptions for both postdoctoral fellowships associated with the grant.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description NHM Press release on fieldwork in French Guiana 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact On 6th August 2018, the NHM Press office released ab article entitled "The secrets of frog vision are finally being revealed" (URL located below). This release was written in order to describe several of the main goals of our NERC project to a general audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2018/august/the-secrets-of-frog-vision-are-finally-being-revealed...
 
Description Opening event for Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I spoke to guests at the opening about our NERC project and why we are studying the evolution and diversity of frog vision.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017