Tropical freshwater systems make up a fraction of the aquatic ecosystems on the planet, yet they harbour a large portion of fish diversity. What are the evolutionary drivers of tropical biodiversity?

My research seeks to document tropical biodiversity and investigate the historical evolutionary processes responsible for generating them. Below are what I consider the four pillars of my research.

Photo by Sarah Steele
Field Work

It all starts in the field. I am drawn to studying tropical organisms because of their success, in terms of species richness and diversity. But studying such groups relies on abundant specimen and environmental data. Field work is a necessary (and exciting) part of my research, as it sustains the continued growth of museum collections that support current and as-of-yet unimagined future research programs.


I infer evolutionary relationships using traditional phylogenetic and emerging species tree approaches based on high throughput sequencing data. Well-resolved phylogenies facilitate taxonomic classification. They also provide opportunities to apply comparative phylogenetic approaches to study molecular, lineage, phenotypic and ecological diversification at macroevolutionary scales.

Phylogeny of Cichlidae. Astudillo-Clavijo et al. unpublished
Functional locomotor phenotypes. Modified from Astudillo-Clavijo et al. 2015
Fictional adaptive landscape inferred from phenotypic data. Astudillo-Clavio et al. unpublished.

Phenotypic data allows us to make indirect inferences about organisms’ ecology, especially when the selection of trait data is based on an understanding of the relationship between physical form and ecological function. In my research, I apply an array of comparative phylogenetic tools to reconstruct the evolutionary history of functional phenotypic traits collected on museum specimens. This work helps to elucidate the role of historical processes, such as ecological opportunity or geological events, involved in clade diversification.


In addition to phenotypic data, I also integrate ecological information to gain a deeper understanding of ecological process (e.g. habitat adaptation) at the community level and over macroevolutionary timescales. The inclusion of ecological data for species rich and broadly distributed groups is hindered by the challenges of collecting sufficient standardized ecological data in the field. I have spent part of my career developing and testing approaches for extracting quantitative ecological data from qualitative environmental information archived in museum field notes. The resulting quantitative data has served to document diversity patterns and to assess specific ecological correlates of phenotypic diversification in continentally distributed taxa.

Diagrammatical representation of different cichlid diet and habitat preferences. Astudillo-Clavijo et al. unpublished

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