Dr. Luis Espinasa and Caribbean Research: From teleost fish to cave-dwelling Nicoletiids

Dr. Luis Espinasa in the Jackrabbit Room-2

Dr. Luis Espinasa holds a B.A. from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and a Ph.D. from New York University. In 2006, he began teaching at Marist College, where he teaches courses in Genetics and Field Biology. I first heard about Dr. Espinasa from students who were excitedly speaking about their trips to the Caribbean, where he often takes teams for hands-on research experiences. He has conducted studies in Aruba, Cuba, Mustique, Puerto Rico, as well as many other sites in Mexico and the United States. With his students, he has discovered new species of silverfish insects and new populations of cavefish and amphipods (shrimp-like creatures about the size of a grain of rice he discovered locally, in the ice caves of Sam’s Point Preserve in the Shawangunk Ridge in New York).

His primary area of expertise is evolutionary biology using cave organisms as model systems. He conducts research in two broad areas: one involves the evolution of complex characters such as blindness in the teleost fish, Astyanax mexicanus and Cottus Bairdi-cognattus, and the second concerns the phylogeography of cave-dwelling Nicoletiids (Insecta: Zygentoma) using sequence data from nuclear and mitochondrial genes.

He has worked in the colonization of the Antillean Islands by Nicoletiid Insects (Zygentoma, “Apterygota”).The Antillean Islands have a diverse fauna characterized by high levels of endemism. The biogeographical origin of this fauna has long been contested. Two main models have been proposed: The vicariance model suggests that a proto-Antillean fauna connecting North and South America in the late Cretaceous (more than 65 mya) was divided by plate tectonic movement to form the island biotas. As such, organisms would be living fossils. The dispersal model proposes that animals propagated over the seas during the Cenozoic (less than 65 mya) to reach the islands and colonized them more recently. Nicoletiid insects (Zygentoma, “thysanura”), commonly known as “silverfish”, may be a valuable model for studying the biogeography of the West Indies. These insects are wingless and most live underground in places such as caves where strong winds cannot blow them to neighboring lands. It likewise appears that these types of insects cannot easily hop across aquatic barriers from one island to the next. In his study, DNA sequences are used to establish the phylogenetic relationships of most American nicoletiids and likely routes and dates of where and when the islands were colonized by these organisms.

Here are two abstracts that describe the work he has performed with a focus on the Caribbean:

New Genus Allocation for the Cavernicole Nicoletiids (Insecta: Zygentoma) of Aruba and Description of their Previously Unknown Males (with Ellise C. Cappuccio)

Abstract: Cubacubana arubana Mendes 1986, was described from only female specimens. We describe the male morphology for the first time. Males have the diagnostic articulated submedian appendages on urosternum IV found in specimens of the genus Anelpistina, and Anelpistina arubana, n. comb., is proposed DNA sequences of 16S rRNA also indicate that the species is widely distributed throughout caves of Aruba and not restricted to the single type-locality cave.

Cenozoic colonization of the Lesser Antilles by Nicoletiid insects (Zygentoma, ‘‘Apterygota’’) and a new species of Anelpistinafrom Mustique Island (with Alanna Henneberry, and Terrence Turner)

Abstract: Mustique Island in the Lesser Antilles is inhabited by Nicoletia phytophila Gervais, 1844 (5Nicoletia meinerti Silvestri 1905) and by a new species of Anelpistina, described herein. Morphology and 18S rRNA sequences indicate that the new species of Anelpistina shares affinities with a species from Aruba Island, and both islands appear to have been colonized in the middle to late Cenozoic, possibly helped by low sea levels during glaciations. Nicoletia phytophila is of more recent origin and humans probably facilitated dispersion over the seas.

For more information, see http://www.marist.edu/science/facviewer.html?uid=280

Also see http://www.shawangunkjournal.com/2009/12/03/news/0912031.html, http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.4289/07-038.1?journalCode=went, and https://archive.org/stream/cbarchive_121611_anewspeciesofthegenuscubacuban1882/anewspeciesofthegenuscubacuban1882_djvu.txt

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