Massey has researchers working on evolution-related topics across our areas of expertise. Our areas of expertise and applications include heritable changes across successive generations of biological populations, speciation, phylogeny, adaptation, evolutionary ecology and genetics, experimental evolution, parasitology and infectious disease.
Our researchers are using techniques from areas such as computer science, contemporary genomics and statistics to decipher large biological systems such as DNA, RNA and chromatin information, including modelling genome dynamics. One focus is establishing how genetic variation is distributed within and between individuals and determining how this diversity changes over evolutionary time.
Coevolution and mutualism
This is the study of interdependency between plants and animals, including pollination and seed-dispersal mutualisms and the exploitation of plants for food (herbivory and seed predation). We study chemical communication between individuals and among species to understand the evolution of species interactions.
Understanding the genome is central for studies ranging from disease and cancer to fundamental questions in evolution. By unravelling the information in genomes and why selection favours one genotype we are learning to unlock the secrets of life’s building blocks.
We work on the genetics of diversification, reverse evolution and rules of genetic evolution and evolutionary relationships among species.
Our research focuses on understanding and modelling evolutionary processes using a wide range of bacterial, viral and eukaryotic microorganisms using cutting edge molecular, genomic and experimental methods.
Molecular and evolutionary ecology
Our research investigates the evolutionary and ecological processes that determine the structure and functioning of populations and communities. We use genetic/genomic tools in combination with environmental DNA sampling, field surveys, and experiments to address questions on population connectivity, local adaptation, trophic interactions, and the distribution of genetic diversity in natural populations and communities.
Speciation, hybridisation and adaptation
We study the process of evolution by natural selection and the origin of new lineages by hybridisation. Population genetics are used to estimate gene flow, population size changes, historical distribution and species boundaries.
We are especially interested in the underlying ecological, evolutionary and genetic mechanisms that drive diversification and have particular expertise in adaptive radiation – the rapid splitting of a single lineage into a range of niche adapted types.
Creating a better picture of human diversity
Professor Murray Cox received a $925,000 Marsden Grant in 2017 to look at creating a more representative picture of human diversity, with immediate downstream relevance to the history and health of Pacific peoples.
The research will focus on small traditional villages in eastern Indonesia to analyse and quantify how much DNA diversity has functional effects. This will provide evolutionary insight into the genome dynamics of traditional human populations within the kinds of small community networks where most human evolution historically occurred.
Fifty shades of prey
One of the enduring paradoxes of evolutionary biology is: how do high levels of genetic diversity persist within a population? Massey scientists, led by Dr James Dale, working with American researchers, are addressing this major question through detailed genetic and behavioural research on the dramatic colour variation occurring in an abundant, endemic and poorly known marine isopod, Isocladus armatus. The outputs of this project promise to greatly improve our understanding of both evolution and gene flow in marine environments, and will provide hard insight into the processes that maintain biological diversity.
Geographic parthenogenesis and the common stick insect of New Zealand
Reproduction without males has evolved in many stick insect species. In New Zealand the common stick insect left males behind as it expanded south, resulting in all-female populations in the south and east of North Island that have lost the propensity for sex. Using captive breeding and DNA sequencing we showed that the majority of all‐female populations originate from a single loss of sexual reproduction.
Identification of a rare gecko from North Island New Zealand, and genetic assessment of its probable origin
When a new gecko was discovered in a mainland island reserve, a cross-university team, led by Massey's Associate Professor Mary Morgan-Richards and including Professor Dianne Brunton and Associate Professor Weihong Ji, used genetic tools to determine that it was a species previously thought to be completely restricted to offshore islands. The research found that the species has likely survived on the North Island at very low population densities since predators were introduced by humans around 800 years ago.
Integrating fossils and genetics of New Zealand molluscs
New Zealand has a speciose and largely endemic mollusc fauna, meaning that most species have evolved here in response to local conditions. The history of molluscs is also well represented in New Zealand’s rich marine paleontological record. We are studying the evolution of species by combining molecular phylogenetics, based on DNA, with geometric morphometrics of shell shape. This integrative approach allows us to determine species boundaries and evolutionary relationships in greater detail. With such integrated datasets we can then investigate rates and patterns of evolution, and relate these to mechanisms that have driven natural selection of the species living today.
Natural selection in the evolution of snail shells
Correlation of shell phenotype and local environment suggests a role for natural selection in the evolution of Placostylus snails. Biologists at Massey University (led by Mary Morgan-Richards) are working with palaeontologists to study the evolution of morphology through time and space using New Zealand’s fossil record and molecular phylogenetics.
Plant species radiation
Massey University's Professor Peter Lockhart is acting as co-ordinator for a range of projects investigating species radiation, with a focus on New Zealand flora.
This work is looking to answer questions such as: when and why does species radiation occur? Why have some plant groups radiated and diversified more than others? What roles do glacial refugia play? and How can genetic and genome information be integrated into biodiversity conservation strategies?
Role of olfaction in host plant selection and local adaptation of a polyphagous herbivore
A team including Massey's Dr Maria Minor, Professor Qaio Wang and Professor Steve Trewick used a polyphagous native beetle from New Zealand, the bronze beetle, to explore the role of olfaction in locating host plants and local adaptation.
The project showed that plant volatiles play an important role in host location by Eucolaspis, but the acceptance or rejection of a particular host could also involve visual and contact cues.
Unravelling the mystery of the snakes of Galapagos
Partner: Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD)
This research is working to better understand the diversity of snake species on the Galapagos Islands and the evolutionary relationship between these species and snakes on the South American continent.
Up until now, records of snake species on the islands have been sporadic and often reliant on museum species. Led by Massey's Dr Luis Ortiz Catedral, the work aimed to identify how many species of snakes exist in Galapagos and to update the conservation status of each species.
The team has collated the most comprehensive dataset on morphology of live snakes from Galapagos ever seen.
A joint project between Massey University, Canterbury Museum and Auckland War Memorial Museum, the Fauna Toolkit is a portal to 3D digitised models of bird bones from museum collections.
Dame Ella Campbell Herbarium (MPN)
The Dame Ella Campbell Herbarium houses more than 40,000 flora specimens.
The majority of our collection comes from New Zealand, but there are also many specimens from around the world. The majority of our material is from the North Island from the Volcanic Plateau, to Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki and south to Wellington.