Smile Politely

University of Illinois biologist shares his impactful research on biodiversity

A white man with a short brown beard wears grey pants, a light blue long sleeve shirt, a navy blue hat, and polarized sunglasses. He is wearing a blue plastic glove and holding a long cotton swab. He is seated on on a dirt path or the edge of a wet area near the roots of plants and trees that are visible at the top of the picture.
Mark Davis

In a recent groundbreaking discovery that has left scientists around the world in awe, researchers have verified the first-ever case of a crocodile virgin birth. Known as parthenogenesis, the phenomenon involves a female crocodile fertilizing her eggs without the need for any male genetic contribution. This discovery will advance our understanding of reptile reproduction and will open new doors for further research.

A close up view of a crocodile egg. it is oval shaped and held up to a light source by two hands. It is glowing orange with a dark orange band around the middle. The  banding pattern is indicative of potential viability.
Quetzal Dwyer

In a previous interview with Tiffany Jolley, Davis talks a little bit about his experience with the findings of the study.

Mark Davis, a conservation biologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) at the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) and co-author on the study helped examine the crocodile fetus’ genomic makeup, ultimately discovering that the fetal genome resulted from reproduction without a male crocodile’s genetic contribution. “This discovery speaks to the inferential strength of our modern genomics era,” said Davis. “We couldn’t perform this without the powerful genomic advancements made in the last decade, which allowed us to leverage a massive amount of genomic data, rendering these data irrefutable.” Davis leads the Collaborative Ecological Genetics Lab at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which uses conservation genomics to assess the evolution of modern biodiversity, monitor biodiversity via environmental DNA (eDNA), and solve problems via community metabarcoding. “It’s wild, but the data and the science confirm that this is what happened,” he said. “There animals are out there in our world — even in Illinois — that are parthenogens, or can produce offspring without a mate, but this is the very first time that anyone has confirmed this in crocodilians.

A gray green female crocodile stands at the edge of the water on a muddy bank. Her tail is elevated and curving to the right.
Quetzal Dwyer

After reading up on this study, I had the privilege of interviewing Davis, to learn more about the importance of advancing biological research. He invests his time in learning about the important species in our world, hoping to figure out what could be negatively impacting them. He then works to come up with ways to protect these species. 

A white man stands in front of a grassy hill and blue sky holding a very long snake. He wears a navy blue hat and shirt with the University of Illinois "I" in orange and white displayed on both. The snake is completely rigid and straight up in the air.
Mark Davis

Davis wants to shed light on creatures that have a huge significance in keeping our planet healthy. Because these creatures are often loathed and misunderstood, their true importance is often overlooked. I like working on rattlesnakes… on bats… on scorpions… and these are the things that sometimes give people the creeps and are persecuted as a consequence,” said Davis. “I like to root for the underdog, so a lot of the work that we do is really trying to protect those organisms that have a rough go of things. You have people that are afraid of them and want nowhere near them, and then you have people like me that are drawn to them and fascinated by them.” 

We began discussing the major components of Davis’ research. “My research program has three big chunks. The first one centers around the genetics and genomics work we do. I run a one-stop shop for all things genetics and genomics” he said. This part of the program is meant to help answer questions about what might be pushing biodiversity toward extinction. Using this information, he and his team can determine the best way to go about these situations. 

The second part of Davis’ research centers around bats. “I’m the leader of the Illinois Bat Conservation Program and that’s a project that is exclusively aimed at protecting bats here in Illinois,” he voiced. “You might be wondering… why should anyone care about protecting bats? Bats eat lots of bugs, particularly agricultural pests. The things that are eating our corn and soy fields, bats eat them. They confer nationally billions of dollars in pest control every year in America and are overall incredibly important to our agricultural economy.”

Unfortunately, they’re not doing well. Many things are negatively impacting bats. “They get killed by wind turbines. Their habitat is continuously getting destroyed. Pesticides and other pollutants in the waterways are impacting their prey as well as their ability to get clean water.” The list goes on and on. “And then in 2013, a new disease started sweeping through North America. It’s called white nose syndrome. It’s a fungus that impacts some of our bats that hibernate in caves along the Mississippi River on the western side of the state. It’s killed 99% of bats hibernating in the winter.”

A white man in khaki waders and boots, a white t-shirt, and navy blue hat collects water samples in a body of water. It is brown with big rocks visible at the bottom.
Mark Davis

The last part of Davis’ research is a partnership-driven approach to conservation. “I work with large groups of state, federal, tribal, non-governmental and private organizations to take the research that we have here and use that to develop landscape-scale conservation initiatives to try protecting habitats and other species. It’s really taking that next step where it’s not just research. Instead, it’s bringing people together, sharing our knowledge and trying to help make decisions that are going to hopefully have a positive impact on biodiversity.”

Davis and I discussed how research plays a crucial role in advancing future research. “One of the things I find most beautiful about science is that every piece of data that we generate is a building block to something else. We’re increasingly living in an open-source age where all of our data ultimately ends up online and available for other researchers. They can take it further and do things that we may have never thought of. One question inevitably leads to more questions.

As we concluded our interview, I was left with a much deeper appreciation for all the other living things that make up our world. It’s amazing to think how the creatures that are often undervalued could end up being the most important creatures of all. Dr. Mark Davis’ passion for his field and ability to explain his work has left me more knowledgeable about the importance of biodiversity and I hope it will do the same for others.

To finish off our conversation, I asked Davis what his favorite animal to research is. “My favorite animal I’ve ever researched is the rattlesnake hands down. Love them. Fascinated by them. Could talk about them for days. I’m just absolutely fascinated by them and, if I could work on rattlesnakes every day, I would be super fulfilled.”

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