I am a Boulder native and a recent graduate of CU-Boulder. In the Tripp Lab, I began my work on a project in collaboration with the COLO Herbarium (co-advised by Collections Manager Dina Clark) regarding variation in a perennial shrub known as Amorpha nana, or colloquially, Dwarf Indigo. This plant has been treated as a single species in western North America, but some populations of Dwarf Indigo in southeastern Colorado, specifically in the Purgatory River Watershed, an extensive area of remote canyons and tablelands that stretches south of the Arkansas River Valley to the New Mexico State Line, are rather different in appearance than populations of Dwarf Indigo elsewhere in the West. Could Purgatory populations represent a different species? In order to find out, I started comparing the DNA of Amorpha nana from the Purgatory to the DNA of Amorpha nana from other locations in the West.
My project eventually evolved to include the study of other species found statewide that are also different in appearance in the Purgatory. Our working hypothesis is that, because this unique and remote area is at an intersection of vastly different ecological areas (north of the Chihuahuan Desert and east of the Rockies) and consists of miles of isolated canyons, the Purgatory Watershed might represent a region of neoendemism in western North America. Neoendemism refers to the recent evolution of new species that haven’t yet had time to disperse to different geographic areas—in other words, newly evolved species that are endemic (restricted to) a very small geographic area of Earth. Thus far, I have found evidence that Dwarf Indigo harbors a molecular signature of neoendemism in southeastern Colorado, with unique DNA mutations specific to plants of this area and not occurring in any other populations of this species. I am now branching out to test this hypothesis of neoendemism in other plants of this area including cacti and aquatic species.
This summer, I made a field trip to the Purgatory with Dina, Dr. Tripp, and graduate student Vanessa Diaz. Although field and lab work are very time consuming, I’ve enjoyed doing research in Dr. Tripp’s lab and with Dina and Dr. Tripp in the University of Colorado Herbarium because all results (perhaps even results that do not support the hypothesis) yield new insights into ecology and evolutionary biology, which I find to be very exciting. I hope that the work I am doing will inspire others to pursue research on the rich and unexpected diversity and rich evolutionary histories that can be found in southeastern Colorado!