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Dr. Beren Robinson
Associate Professor

 Dr. Beren Robinson


Office: SSC 2455
Ext: 58968
Lab: SSC 2403/2404
Ext: 54582


Where does biodiversity come from? What role does ecology play in the origins of different life forms? I ask these questions about 'the life aquatic' (no doubt fed by early Cousteau specials…), in order to understand how new types and species of fish have evolved in lakes that formed after the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago (in other words, most lakes in Canada…). While this seems a long time period, it is actually a mere 'tick' of the evolutionary or geological clock. The diversity of fishes in postglacial lakes is influenced by processes that occurred long ago in glacial refugia, more recently during dispersal across the postglacial 'lakescape', and most recently within the young lakes that I can swim in.

We have explored the role of species interactions (competitors, predators, and parasites), the affect of prey resources, niches and habitats (on the bottom, in the water column, or in vegetation…), and even abiotic conditions (basin topography?) on biodiversity in sunfishes, sticklebacks and walleye. I am very interested in the origins and consequences of diversity within single populations. Trophic polymorphism occurs when different types of individuals appear adapted to use different prey, habitats, or environments within a single population. Such systems are like time travel, giving us insights into the earliest stages of divergence that can lead to divergent populations and perhaps new species. Recently, we have been studying the role of phenotypic plasticity in the divergence of different forms in novel environments. Plasticity is the capacity of a single genotype to produce different phenotypes depending on environmental cues. We have found that the plastic responses to local conditions are one of the very first things to change during divergence. This raises interesting questions about the role of plasticity in evolution that will no doubt occupy us for years to come.


B.Sc. - Dalhousie
M.Sc. - Dalhousie
Ph.D. - Binghamton


Aquatic Evolutionary Ecology

How do traits evolve? How do traits influence a population's ecology? How does competition and predation influence trait evolution? What traits are plastic in individuals and respond to local environment? How do plastic traits influence a population's ecology and evolution? How do populations diverge and perhaps become new species? We address these questions using the fishes of northern postglacial lakes that have recently and rapidly diverged and also with larval dragonfly and damselfly in small ponds around Guelph. Fish populations sometimes exhibit resource polymorphism, where a single population in a lake is composed of different coexisting forms that use different lake habitats, eat different foods, and have differences in morphological, behavioral and life history traits. We study polymorphic sunfish populations and stickleback in Ontario and New York, and with collaborators have studied polymorphic walleye in Lake Winnipeg, and stickleback and charr in Iceland. We also work on larval dragonflies and damselflies that coexist with or without each other and with or without different predatory fishes in local ponds around Guelph in order to understand the interaction between the evolution of traits, phenotypic plasticity and ecological relationships. We use a variety of methods (manipulative experiments in the field and lab, and comparative surveys of natural populations) to test if morphology and other traits have plastic responses to a variety of ecological factors, and if selection favours trait evolution and the divergence of populations which creates biological diversity. In our work, we often collaborate with population geneticists to better understand how past evolution shapes current evolution, functional morphologists and physiologists to better understand how traits function, and ecologists to understand species interactions.

Phenotypic Plasticity and Evolution

Phenotypic plasticity is the capacity of a single genotype to develop or display alternate phenotypes in response to different environmental cues. In the past, biologists viewed plasticity as nuisance environmental variation of little interest. This idea is now rapidly changing as we discover that many plastic responses are adaptive (evolve under selection in heterogeneous environments where different traits influence fitness) and because plasticity fascinatingly demonstrates that information from the environment gets inside organisms and influences the phenotypes they express. This means that the environment fills two important functions during Darwinian evolution: sorting phenotypes by natural selection, but also influencing the phenotypic variation expressed and present in a population. We study how the environment influences individual phenotype and the variation of types in populations; whether plasticity is heritable, is under selection and so evolves in populations and species. We also study whether plasticity allows individuals to exploit, and populations to persist in, new habitats which may drive another round of adaptive evolution, and how this occurs. We make artificial crosses and collect wild progeny of different forms and rear them under different diets or with different predator cues in the lab in order to measure plastic responses and also heritable variation and how these contribute to variation in phenotype. We also study how greater or lesser plasticity evolves and how plasticity contributes to or constrains the evolution of traits and of populations in heterogeneous environments.

Selected Publications

Aquatic Evolutionary Ecology

Gleason J, D Fudge and BW Robinson. Eco-mechanics of lamellar autotomy in larval damselflies. Journal of Experimental Biology 217: 185-191.

Peiman KS, and BW Robinson. 2012. Diversifying and correlational selection on behaviour towards conspecific and heterospecific competitors in brook stickleback (Culaea inconstans). Ecology and Evolution 2: 2141-2154.

Bose APH, and BW Robinson. 2012. Invertebrate predation predicts variation in an autotomy-related trait in larval damselfly. Evolutionary Ecology (Published on line May 2012). DOI 10.1007/s10682-012-9581-3.

Weese D, MM Ferguson and BW Robinson. 2012. Contemporary and historic evolutionary processes interact to shape patterns of within-lake phenotypic divergences in polyphenic pumpkinseed sunfish, Lepomis gibbosus. Ecology and Evolution 2:574-592.

Moles MD, TA Johnston, BW Robinson, AM Bernard, CC Wilson, MD Wiegand, WC Leggett. 2011. Reproductive divergence between growth forms of Lake Winnipeg walleye (Sander vitreus). Ecology of Freshwater Fish 20: 52-66.

Peiman KS and BW Robinson. 2010. Ecology and evolution of resource-related heterospecific aggression. Quarterly Review of Biology 85: 133-158.

Moles MD, BW Robinson, TA Johnston, RA Cunjak, TD Jardine, JM Casselman, WC Leggett. 2010. Morphological and trophic differentiation of growth morphotypes of Walleye (Sander vitreus) from Lake Winnipeg, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology 88: 950-960.

Moles M, TA Johnston, BW Robinson, WC Leggett and JM Casselman. 2008. Is gonadal investment in walleye (Sander vitreus) dependent on body lipid reserves? A multipopulation comparative analysis. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 65: 600-614.

Peiman K and BW Robinson. 2007. Heterospecific aggression and adaptive divergence in brook stickleback (Culaea inconstans). Evolution 61: 1327-1338.

Jastrebski CJ and BW Robinson. 2004. Natural selection and the evolution of replicated trophic polymorphisms in pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus). Evolutionary Ecology Research 6: 285-305.

Gray SM, BW Robinson and KJ Parsons. 2005. Testing alternative explanations of character shifts against ecological character displacement in brook sticklebacks (Culaea inconstans) that coexist with ninespine sticklebacks. Oecologia 146: 25-35.

Gray SM, and BW Robinson. 2002. Experimental evidence that competition between stickleback species favors adaptive character divergence. Ecology Letters 5: 264-272.

Phenotypic Plasticity and Evolution

Robinson BW. 2013. Evolution of growth by genetic accommodation in Icelandic freshwater stickleback. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B Biological Sciences. Published online Oct. 16, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2197; December 2013 vol. 280

Robinson, BW and Pfennig, DW. 2013 Inducible competitors and adaptive diversification. Current Zoology 59: 537-552 (Special column: Evolution of phenotypic plasticity).

Küettner E, Parsons K, Robinson B, Skúlason S, Danzmann R, Ferguson M. 2013. Effects of population, family and feeding orientation on craniofacial morphology in Icelandic Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 108: 702-714.

Robinson, BW, AJ Januszkiewicz and JC Koblitz. 2008. Survival benefits and divergence of predator-induced behavior between pumpkinseed sunfish ecomorphs. Behavioral Ecology 19: 263-271.

Parsons KJ and BW Robinson. 2006. Replicated evolution of integrated plastic responses during early adaptive evolution. Evolution 60: 801-813.

Januszkiewicz A and BW Robinson. 2007. Divergent walleye (Sander vitreus) - mediated inducible defenses in the Centrarchid pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 90: 25-36.

Parsons KJ and BW Robinson. 2007. Foraging performance of diet-induced morphotypes in pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus) favors resource polymorphism. J. Evolutionary Biology 20: 673-684.

Robinson BW and KJ Parsons. 2002. Changing times, spaces and faces: tests and implications of adaptive morphological plasticity in the fishes of northern postglacial lakes. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 59: 1819-1833.

Robinson BW and R Dukas. 1999. The influence of phenotypic modifications on evolution: the Baldwin effect and modern perspectives. Oikos 85: 582-589.

Robinson BW and DS Wilson. 1996. Genetic variation and phenotypic plasticity in a polymorphic population of pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus). Evolutionary Ecology 10: 631-652.

Other Research Interests

Colborne S and BW Robinson. 2012. Effect of nutritional condition on variation in δ13C and δ15N stable isotope values in Pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus) fed different diets. Environmental Biology of Fishes (published online, June 2012. DOI 10.1007/s10641-012-0040-3.

Riopel C, BW Robinson, KJ Parsons. 2008. Analyzing nested variation in the body form of Lepomid sunfishes. Environmental Biology of Fishes 82: 409-420.

O'Hara Hines RJ, WGS. Hines, and BW Robinson. 2004. A new statistical test of the shape of fitness sets estimated from reciprocal transplant experiments involving intermediate or hybrid classes. The American Naturalist 163: 97-104.

Parsons KJ, BW Robinson, and T Hrbek. 2003. Getting into shape: An empirical comparison of traditional truss-based morphometric methods with a newer geometric method applied to New world Cichlids. Environmental Biology of Fishes 67: 417-431.

Robinson BW and S Wardrop. 2002. Experimentally manipulated growth rate in threespine sticklebacks: assessing trade offs with developmental stability. Environmental Biology of Fishes 63: 67-78.


BIOL*2250 Biostatistics and the Life Sciences
BIOL*3010 Laboratory and Field Work in Ecology
BIOL*3450 Introduction to Aquatic Environments
BIOL*4110 Ecological Methods
BIOL*4120 Evolutionary Ecology
ZOO*4300 Marine Biology and Oceanography
ZOO*4540 Marine and Freshwater Research
IBIO*6020 Advances in Evolution

Grad Students

Caleb Axelrod (MSc)
David Gislason (PhD)

Recent grad students:
Allison Brown (MSc)
Morgan Edwards (MSc)
Mark D'Aguiar (MSc)
Scott Colborne (MSc)


Canada's Aquatic Environments
Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution
Searchable Fish Base
Evolutionary Ecology Research
Ecology @ Guelph
Source about Canadian Science