Assistant Scientist, Conservation Genetics Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development
Understanding species boundaries, hybridization, and genetic diversity in Hibiscus species endemic to the Mascarene Islands. Edwards is a population geneticist whose research includes studies of the genetic diversity of endangered species. Hibiscus fragilis is a highly endangered plant species endemic to the Mascarene Islands, which are three volcanic islands in the Indian Ocean. H. fragilis was originally distributed on the Mascarene islands of Mauritius and Reunion, but populations were decimated by habitat loss, invasive species, and hybridization with ornamentals, such that as of 2012, the known populations shrank to a total of 36 individuals on two mountaintops in Mauritius. A population containing around 100 individuals thought to be H. fragilis was recently discovered on Reunion. However, some questions about the identity of this population have arisen. The goals of this study will be to confirm that this population is indeed H. fragilis, check for the possibility of hybridization of H. fragilis with the ornamental species H. rosasinensis, and assess patterns of genetic diversity in this highly endangered species. Colleagues in the Mascarene Islands will provide leaf tissue samples of H. fragilis from Mauritius and Reunion, as well as samples of other closely related, highly endangered Hibiscus species endemic to the Mascarenes, such as H. liliflorus, H. boryanus, and H. genevii. The REU student will genotype individuals of each species, investigate patterns of genetic divergence within and among populations of each putative species, assess levels of genetic diversity in each species, and check for the possibility of hybridization with H. rosasinensis. The genetic data will also be used to help guide applied management efforts to reintroduce populations of several species into protected areas.