Those trees are going to be here for hundreds of years. Every time the students come back, they are going to go look at their trees.

For an evolutionary biologist, the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands lies not in their sandy beaches, warm waters and tropical waterfalls, but in their isolation. Situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, roughly halfway between North America and Asia, the archipelago begs the question of how and when native plants and animals got there, and how they evolved as they spread out to diverse habitats across the islands.

As a graduate student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UConn, Steve Jordan studied Hawaii's damselflies, slender-bodied cousins of dragonflies. Today, Hawaii has 23 endemic or native species of damselfly, all of which belong to the same genus. Using genetic techniques, Jordan, now an associate professor of biology, determined that all 23 of today's species evolved from one species that arrived in Hawaii about 10 million years ago.

More recently, Jordan and graduate student Brandon Jones have been looking at how two of those species have moved around the islands. By using DNA fingerprinting, they can hypothesize how the insects responded to factors like the rise and fall of sea levels and bottlenecks in their population numbers. Jordan also has collected specimens from French Polynesia to ask whether that was the source of the original Hawaiian damselfly colonizer and to study their systematics and biogeography in collaboration with three Bucknell undergraduates.

Despite the enticement of working on tropical islands, Jordan is turning his focus to another aquatic insect found closer to home, a genus of stonefly found in the Appalachian Mountains and in the Pacific Northwest. Like damselflies, stoneflies spend their younger days underwater before hatching into a flying adult. Jordan looks forward to being able to take more students and his family along on field expeditions.

As a biology professor, Jordan appreciates Bucknell's liberal arts environment. He even put his undergraduate degree in French to use, teaching a course — in French — on the cultural importance of regional food for the Bucknell en France program. Students harvested grapes at a century-old vineyard, learned the importance of geology and geography on growing grapes, studied the biology and chemistry behind fermentation and applied the lessons of fermentation as they tried their hands at making cheese.

Jordan has also enjoyed the interdisciplinary teaching experience as a senior fellow in the Environmental Residential College. He worked with two Bucknell colleagues, geology professor Jeff Trop and environmental studies professor Peter Wilshusen, to engage students in learning and outreach on a variety of environmental topics. One group investigating biodiversity found a race of American elms that are resistant to Dutch elm disease, which had killed most of the elms on campus. Two of the resistant individuals were planted on the Dana quad, initiating an archipelago of another kind with its own special qualities. "Those trees are going to be here for hundreds of years," Jordan says. "Every time the students come back, they are going to go look at their trees."

Posted Sept. 9, 2009

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