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Population Genetic Structure, Patterns of Gene Flow, and Applications in Conservation and Restoration

My research focuses on the "movement" of genetic information through space and time. I am primarily interested in the patterns of gene flow for organisms living in flowing water ecosystems. Prior to 18,000 years ago, most of NY was uninhabitable for aquatic organisms, being under Pleistocene glaciers. As the ice retreated, habitats were opened up and organisms were again able to colonize the region. Using genetic markers, the migration pathways used by different organisms can be delineated, letting us see how life history affects population migration. Another application of "genes through space and time" is in aiding conservation efforts. Genetic markers can be used to identify source populations for reintroductions (restoration genetics), as well as identify anthropogenic barriers to gene flow that may be impacting Threatened, or Endangered species. Lastly, I'm interested in how mating and dispersal habits influence the flow of genetic information across the landscape. If sex-biased differences in dispersal exist, how are phylogeographic patterns (genetic structure across space) different between maternally- and paternally-inherited genetic markers? Although I am an entomologist by training, my current research program involves fish as well as insects, and I'm always interested in examining new organisms.

I am interested in a range of topics including conservation ecology, population ecology, mating and dispersal, phylogeography, and patterns of gene flow.

My current projects include:

  • Mapping out fine-scale population genetic structure of aquatic insects in New York
  • Identifying genetically-similar source populations for the reintroduction of Acroneuria frisoni (Stark and Brown), a golden stonefly, in the Vermillion River, IL
  • Conservation genetics of the New Mexico Threatened White Sands pupfish (Cyprinodon tularosa (Miller and Echelle))
  • Detection of possible bait-bucket introductions of Johnny Darters (Etheostoma nigrum (Rafinesque) in North Dakota
  • The effects of post-ovipositional dispersal and mating habits of Nigronia serricornis (Say), a fishfly, on gene flow patterns

    Fine-scale Population Genetic Structure in NY
    Previous research (Heilveil and Berlocher 2006) has shown that in Nigronia serricornis (Say), the saw-combed fishfly, two phylogenetically distinct clades have come into secondary contact in the state of NY. As part of a project funded by the Research Foundation, I am attempting to map out the zone of secondary contact for this species. The Faculty Research Grant funding this work is also funding a study of the phylogeographic patterns of Acroneuria carolinensis, one of the golden stoneflies found in the state of NY. Using the mitochondrial gene, cytochrome oxidase I (COI), I will be performing a Nested Clade Analysis of phylogeographic patterns across the state for both species.

    Restoration Genetics of Acroneuria frisoni (Stark and Brown)
    In collaboration with Dr. R. Edward DeWalt of the Illinois Natural History Survey, I am working on identifying populations of A. frisoni that are genetically similar to those that had been living in the Vermillion River in Illinois in the 1940s and 1950s, prior to degradation of the river. Now that the river has physically recovered, we are hoping to facilitate the successful reintroduction of the species. This project has been partially funded by a Student-Initiated Research Grant to Ember Chabot (Environmental Sciences).

    Conservation genetics of the White Sands Pupfish
    There are only four populations of Cyprinodon tularosa (Miller and Echelle) worldwide, three of which occur on an active missile range. Two of the populations are relicts of a glacial lake, while the other two are the result of bait-bucket introductions in the last 30 years. Earlier work by Craig Stockwell at North Dakota State University (NDSU) has shown that the populations fall into two (sensu lato) Evolutionarily Significant Units. Using a suite of microsatellite markers, we have recently performed a detailed analysis of the populations to determine whether good replicate populations exist, or if further management needs to be performed to safeguard the species (Heilveil and Stockwell, in prep.). We are also examining genetic diversity in MHC genes, as the different populations experience different parasite communities (Chen, Heilveil, and Stockwell, in prep.). Lastly, we have been examining rapid evolution due to small founder size in a series of replicate ponds, as the population with the best ecological match to one of the relictual populations appears to have been founded with approximately 30 fish (Stockwell and Heilveil, in prep.).

    Translocations in Johnny Darters
    Work by Ali Tackett at NDSU examined the population genetics of Etheostoma nigrum (Rafinesque) in the upper Midwest. Although the Johnny Darter is not considered a game fish species in the US, it is in Canada. Tackett found one population from an isolated lake that may represent a translocated population, rather than a natural colonization event. Because the species appears ideal to use as a "reference species" in terms of genetic structure for the region, I am working in collaboration with Tackett and Stockwell to determine whether the genetic signature found at the isolated lake is due to a translocation event, or due to the isolated nature of the population.

    Sex-biased Dispersal and its Effects on Population Genetics
    Previously, I found that female Nigronia serricornis appear to use a bet-hedging strategy in terms of oviposition and dispersal, and that males do not appear to disperse from their natal site (Heilveil 2004). For that reason, I am attempting to find a male-specific DNA marker to compare the phylogeographic patterns with those from COI, a maternally-inherited gene.