Decana – Colegio de Ciencias Biológicas y Ambientales

“What can research on Ecuadorian biodiversity tell us about the uniqueness of life and culture, the case of Galapagos extremophiles and Amazonian primates”

Along the history of science there are several examples of paradigm shifts triggered by new research in unexplored areas. The astonishing and greatly unexplored biodiversity in Ecuador, from the extremophiles in Galapagos to the non-human primates in the Amazon, has been the basis for new research that have contributed to challenging classic ideas in evolution. The discovery of organisms living in the extreme environments of hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean beds of Galapagos in 1977 was remarkably important for our understanding of life’s origins and of the conditions required for life to occur. Extremophiles thrive in environments where most living organisms will die. Some extremophiles could survive in the outer space and some may be able to live in the environments of other planets. In this context, for the proponents of the Panspermia theory – the transfer of life throughout the Universe – the study of extremophiles could provide a hint of how this transfer could occur. Thus, extremophiles are not only an example of how diverse the results of natural selection could be but their existence challenge the classic idea that life is unique to Earth and that can only occur in a very narrow range of environmental conditions. In a similar way as the research on extremophiles has opened new horizons for the study of life on Earth, research on non-human primates has challenged the classic idea that culture is unique to humans. Culture is defined as the non genetic transmission of behavioral styles to the next generation. In humans, one example of a culturally transmitted behavior is language. The existence of the extraordinary linguistic diversity in our species has been directly related to our learning abilities. To understand how these characteristics evolved we have turned to the study of vocal communication and learning in non-human primates. However, evidences of similar processes in our closest relatives are scarce. In a study I carried out with my research team on the pygmy marmoset Cebuella pygmaea in Amazonian Ecuador, we found evidence that cultural variation in vocal communication may be the rule rather than the exception in the Primate Order and that the apparently reduced vocal variability in primates is an artifact of the lack of appropriate quantitative data. In our study, we found significant interpopulation differences in the acoustic structure of two contact calls in this species. Some of these differences were explained by the acoustics of the habitats, but several others were not. Genetic analyses using fecal DNA have provided preliminary evidence that genetic diversity among populations is less than diversity within each population. Thus, vocal dialects may not be the result of genetic drift; instead, mechanisms of social learning and cultural transmission may account for the recorded differences. These examples highlight the potential of studying Ecuadorian biodiversity to better understand biological and cultural evolution.