Liz at tidelpool

Liz sampling

Gray whale

Liz Alter

Most broadly, I am interested in the factors that shape the distribution of genetic and species diversity across space (landscape and seascape genetics) and time (population histories). I am also interested in the molecular vestiges left by past environmental conditions and what they can tell us about the adaptation of marine organisms to future global change. In particular, my research spans three fundamental themes in ecology and evolutionary biology:

1) Reconstructing population histories: how and why do populations form, differentiate and fluctuate over time?
2) Measuring the factors influencing dispersal: what are the physical and ecological factors limiting dispersal in the ocean and on land?
3) Understanding the evolutionary histories of species: how do populations diversify, adapt to new environments, and speciate?

To address these questions, I use a variety of tools including modern and ancient DNA analysis, coalescent and population modeling, and isotopic analysis. In addition, I have worked with a diverse array of organisms from fish to fungi, with a recent focus on baleen whales.

Baleen whales are among the most mysterious animals on the planet. Though whales are icons of ocean conservation, we still know relatively little about the way they live and what their populations were like in the past. This information is crucial to restoring populations that were decimated by whaling, particularly for those that continue to experience threats from climate change, pollution, and fisheries bycatch. I use genetic information to understand the historical and current dynamics of whale populations. Genetic data provide us with a window into the past, allowing us to construct a picture of what the oceans looked like before large-scale whaling, and help us understand the factors shaping population differentiation.

Much of my doctoral thesis focuses on the eastern North Pacific gray whale and pre-whaling population dynamics in this species. Recently I developed a suite of nuclear genetic markers to test whether the amount of genetic diversity in eastern gray whales is concordant with our knowledge of past population trends from historical records (Alter et al., PNAS 2007). In collaboration with Drs. Sergio Flores Ramirez, Jorge Urban Ramirez (Universidad Autonomica de Baja California Sur) and Lorenzo Rojas Bracho (Instituto Nacional de Ecologia), I am also conducting a genetic study using microsatellites to determine the extent of fidelity to breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico. Finally, I am working on several ancient DNA projects with the help of the Makah tribe of Washington State to determine the species composition of baleen whales found in prehistorical middens, and to investigate ancient dynamics in gray and humpback whales. Collaborators for these projects include Dr. Elizabeth Hadly, Stanford University; Dr. Michael Hofreiter and Matthias Meyer, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology; Dr. Scott Baker, Oregon State University.

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