The Robert May Prize is awarded annually for the best paper published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution by an Early Career Researcher. We’re delighted to announce that the 2018 winner is Laura Russo, for her article ‘Quantitative evolutionary patterns in bipartite networks: Vicariance, phylogenetic tracking or diffuse co‐evolution?‘.

Plant-pollinator interactions are often considered to be the textbook example of co-evolution. But specialised interactions between plants and pollinators are the exception, not the rule. Plants tend to be visited by many different putative pollinator species, and pollinating insects tend to visit many plant hosts. This means that diffuse co-evolution is a much more likely driver of speciation in these communities. So, the standard phylogenetic methods for evaluating co-evolution aren’t applicable in most plant-pollinator interactions. Also, many plant-pollinator communities involve insect species for which we do not yet have fully resolved phylogenies.

We developed a new method able to use taxonomic data, and capable of handling generalised interactions. Since demonstrating correlated taxonomic structure between plant host and insect visitor isn’t sufficient nor necessary to establish co-evolution, we provide two complementary statistical analyses:

  1. A fourth corner analysis to establish whether there are concordant taxonomic structures between interacting species
  2. A Mantel test to determine whether the taxonomic and interaction structures of the separate taxa are correlated.

To test this new methodology, we examined a legacy dataset collected by Charles Robertson over the course of 33 years and involving over 13,000 unique interactions. Though we did not find evidence in support of co-evolution in this dataset we did show:

  1. Prevalent patterns of asymmetry, where insects were more influenced by their interactions with plants than vice versa
  2. Many examples of probable vicariance and phylogenetic tracking
  3. Support for our observed understanding of strong interactions between interacting taxa
  4. Evidence contraindicating co-evolution in particular groups.

Dr. Russo got her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College, and then her PhD at Penn State in the Biology Department and Interdepartmental Program in Ecology with Katriona Shea. She did a post-doc with Bryan Danforth at Cornell University, and later received a Marie Curie Sklodowska fellowship to conduct two years of postdoctoral research at Trinity College Dublin, with Jane Stout. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology in the Institute for Agriculture at the University of Tennessee.

Laura’s winning paper and all of the articles shortlisted for this year’s award are available to read in this Virtual Issue.

Find out about all of the British Ecological Society Early journal prizes for best article by an Early Career Researcher.