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Ben Titus is a graduate student who works on marine organisms. His portfolio was centered around specialization of species in a habitat.

MAY 19

The many dimensions of specialization

By  Ben Titus

In an evolutionary context specialization is a repeatedly encountered, yet difficult to define, phenomenon. Rarity is certainly inherent to any definition of specialization, yet specialization in one dimension can facilitate generalism in another. For instance, a reproductive specialization (i.e. a rare or infrequently encountered strategy) can lead to ecological or habitat generalization and huge population sizes. Ecologically, specialization often refers to species that, while presented with a wide variety of resources, only utilize or interact with a small subset. Classic examples include plant-pollinator interactions, host use, and many charismatic marine symbioses. My portfolio focuses on the many dimensions of specialization (e.g. reproductive, defense, predation, etc…) with an attempt to highlight unique adaptive traits that may be driven by selection, but also illustrate the oxymoronic nature of specialization: it’s everywhere!

As an evolutionary biologist/ecologist who focuses on marine symbioses, specialization is most apparent to me on tropical coral reefs. The clear blue waters of a tropical coral reef are actually very nutrient poor, and as such, the animals found here have often evolved unique ways to survive. In fact, these biodiversity hotspots are entirely reliant on the highly specialized endosymbiosis between reef building stony corals and photosynthetic algae. These symbioses create the entire 3-dimensional ecosystem (think trees in a forest) that all other reef-dwelling organisms rely upon.

The Flamingo Tongue snail, Cyphoma gibbosum, is a common member of coral reef communities in the Tropical Western Atlantic. Its colorful mantle makes for wonderful macro photography, and its ecology makes it especially easy to find. As a specialist Gorgonian coral (Order: Alcyonacea) predator, C. gibbosum is always found on the branches of these soft corals often leaving a visible feeding scar as it uses its radula to scrape off coral polyps and other soft tissue.

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