This year the Spector Prize has been awarded to two students, Megan Kelly and Jennifer Stevens.The prize, given by the Department of Biology in memory of a 1938 WUSTL graduate, recognizes outstanding undergraduate achievement in research. Kelly did research on the chemical signals used by malaria parasites and Stevens on evolutionary trade-offs in weakly electric fish.
The Mormyridae, a family of African fishes that communicate by means of weak electic discharges, has more than 200 species. Given its diversity a Washington University in St. Louis biologist wondered whether changes in electric communication might have influenced rates of speciation. His work showed that the fishes evolved a complex signal-processing brain before a burst of speciation, that signal variation was higher among fishes with that brain, and that these fishes could distinguish among subtly different discharges, whereas others could not.Together it adds up to a strong case for brain evolution triggering increased diversification.