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Auburn Student Honored with Research Award on Reptile Study

Published: 08/20/2019

By: Carla Nelson

Auburn University Ph.D. student Randy Klabacka is excited about his research and it seems fellow academia agree. Klabacka will soon begin his fourth year as a Ph.D. student studying in the Department of Biological Sciences through the Auburn University College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) and was recently presented an award for his research during the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH) in Snowbird, Utah, in July.

Klabacka was awarded the Henri Seibert Award from the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles for the best student paper, titled “Riverine barriers as potential drivers of biodiversification in the Draco maculatus species complex of Indochina,” presented at the society’s annual meeting.

“I was surprised,” Klabacka said of receiving the award. “I obviously think that the project is really cool, but it’s one of the more competitive competitions at the meeting for the students and some of the other talks were really good. To receive validation from big-time herpetologists was a big confidence boost.” 

The background of Klabacka’s research began while he was an undergraduate student studying general biology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. A Ph.D. student at the university was a mentor to Klabacka and passed on reptile tissues he had collected in Indochina for Klabacka to sequence.

The research focused on Draco maculatus, a reptile commonly known as the spotted flying lizard, which is hypothesized of possibly being multiple species. The initial research was to differentiate the species, but Klabacka became more interested in what caused the reptiles to separate into divergent populations. He concluded that lineages were unique to areas separated by rivers.

“Indochina is south of the Tibetan Plateau (where Mount Everest and the Himalayas are) and five major rivers start there,” Klabacka explained. “The Tibetan Plateau formed when the Indian subcontinent cruised up the Indian Ocean and rammed into Asia. That collision caused huge mountains to rise and these rivers formed. All the dates that we estimated for the origin of these undescribed lizards correspond with results from that major geological event.”

Originally from Las Vegas, Nevada, Klabacka said he has always had an interest in evolution and reptiles.

“Overall I’ve always been interested in processes driving evolution,” he said. “I particularly really like reptiles and amphibians. Growing up I always loved to catch them and be around them.”

The same Ph.D. student that mentored Klabacka during his undergraduate studies was aware of the research Dr. Jamie Oaks was pursuing at Auburn and suggested he pursue his research at Auburn. Klabacka said he was interested in Dr. Oaks’ work in theoretical phylogenetics.

“I love seeing how organisms are related and how they have evolved,” he said. “But I wanted to get more into what causes these organisms to become different species. The whole idea behind evolution is if you have two close related organisms, at some point they were one population and something caused them to split into two.”

Klabacka is co-advised by Dr. Tonia Schwartz, whose area of study includes functional genomics and evolutionary physiology.

“Both of their skillsets are really valuable in helping me integrate phylogenetics with physiology and genomics,” Klabacka said. 

Klabacka’s research in Dr. Oaks and Dr. Schwartz’s labs focus on whiptail lizards (genus Aspidoscelis).

“There are a few organisms that are asexual. They have no males in their species and they just clone themselves,” he explained. “The only vertebrates that do it are lizards and the group that I’m interested in is found in the Southwest.”

In the 1990s, a scientist studied the lizards by testing their endurance on treadmills. He found that the asexual lizards had less endurance than the sexual species, potentially implying a cost for asexual reproduction.

“Sexual reproduction has been a big interest to evolutionary biologists for a long time,” Klabacka explained. “If you look at the world, pretty much everything reproduces sexually. It seems normal until you stop to think about it and then you wonder why? If some animals can just clone themselves, why wouldn’t they do that? They don’t have to worry about finding a mate, which takes time and energy, and they don’t have to worry about all the costs involved with sexual reproduction. Because it’s so rare, people have always assumed there’s got to be some cost to being asexual.”

No conclusions regarding genomics were made in the study conducted in the ’90s, so each summer Klabacka travels to the Southwest to catch the lizards to study them. He also re-tested their endurance on a treadmill and preliminary data shows the asexual lizards do have less endurance.

“I want to see if their mitochondria are less efficient,” he explained of his research. “Mitochondria are what produces the cellular energy in all animals. I’m collaborating with the School of Kinesiology and we’ve taken tissue from these lizards to study the mitochondria. We have a small sample size, so I won’t jump to any conclusions yet, but the hypothesis is that we’re going to see differences in mitochondrial function between sexual and asexual species.”

Dr. Oaks said he has been impressed with Klabacka’s work as a Ph.D. student.

“The project that Randy presented at the JMIH started out as a relatively simple exploration of the genetic diversity and structure of a widespread species of gliding lizard in Southeast Asia,” he said. “He transformed it into a much larger-scale, hypothesis-driven investigation that sheds light on how watershed changes over time might generate biodiversity across this incredibly species rich-region of the world.”

Dr. Schwartz agreed and said Klabacka’s award was well-deserved.

“Randy is an excellent Ph.D. student who is passionate about his research and has been highly independent in defining his research questions and methodology to address them,” she said. “He is a deep thinker and has the ability to provide exceptional insight into complex biological questions. Above all he is a kind, hard-working person and a valued member of the lab. We are proud of him!”

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