Beren Robinson

Photo of Beren Robinson
Phone number: 
519-824-4120 x58968
SSC 2455
SSC 2403/2404

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.

Aquatic Evolutionary Ecology

  • Axelrod CJ, F Laberge, BW Robinson. 2018. Intraspecific brain size variation between coexisting sunfish ecotypes. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B 285: 20181971.
  • Jarvis, WMC, S Comeau, SF Colborne, BW Robinson. 2017. Evidence that weak mate choice may contribute to reproductive barriers to gene flow in a polyphenic sunfish population. J. Evolutionary Biology, 30: 1810-1820.DOI: 10.1111/jeb.13127
  • Gleason J, D Fudge and BW Robinson. 2014. Eco-mechanics of lamellar autotomy in larval damselflies. Journal of Experimental Biology 217: 185 - 191. doi:10.1242/jeb.091827
  • Küttner E, K Parsons, BW Robinson, S Skúlason, R Danzmann, MM Ferguson. 2013. Effects of population, family and feeding orientation on craniofacial morphology in Icelandic Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus). Biol. J. Linnean Soc. 108: 702-714 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-8312.2012.02038.x)
  • 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. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.72
  • Bose APH, and BW Robinson. 2012. Invertebrate predation predicts variation in an autotomy-related trait in larval damselfly. Evolutionary Ecology 27: 27-38.
  • DOI 10.1007/s10682-012-9581-3
  • 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. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.339


Phenotypic plasticity and Evolution

  • Black KL, D Fudge, WMC Jarvis and BW Robinson. 2019 Functional plasticity in lamellar autotomy by larval damselflies in response to predatory larval dragonfly cues. Evolutionary Ecology 33: 257-272.
  • Gíslason D, M Heino, R McLaughlin, BW Robinson, ES Dunlop. 2019. Reaction norm analysis reveals rapid shifts towards delayed maturation in harvested Lake Erie yellow perch (Perca flavescens). Evolutionary Applications 12:888-901. DOI: 10.1111/eva.12764
  • Brown A and BW Robinson. 2016. Variation in behavioural plasticity regulates consistent individual differences in Enallagma damselfly larvae. Animal Behaviour 112: 63-73.
  • Robinson BW. 2013. Evolution of growth by genetic accommodation in Icelandic freshwater stickleback. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B Biological Sciences. 280: 2197-2206. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2197
  • Robinson, BW and DW Pfennig. 2013. Inducible competitors and adaptive diversification. Current Zoology 59: 537-552.


Other research interests

  • Gislason D, RL McLaughlin, BW Robinson, A Cook, ES Dunlop. 2018. Rapid changes in age and size at maturity in Lake Erie yellow perch (Perca flavescens) are not explained by harvest. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 75: 211-223.
  • Grether GF, KS Peiman KS, JA Tobias, BW Robinson. 2017. Causes and consequences of behavioral interference between species. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 32: 760-772.
  • Buse AJ, MA Douglas, T Giguère, BW Robinson. 2017. Adult Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) feeding on goldeneye embryos of Pumpkinseed Sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus) in defended nests. The Canadian Field Naturalist 131: 248-251
  • Peiman, K and BW Robinson. 2017. Comparative analyses of phenotypic trait covariation within and among populations. The American Naturalist 190: 451-468. DOI: 10.1086/693482
  • Lumsden HG, VG Thomas, BW Robinson. 2015. Response of wild Trumpeter Swans, Cygnus buccinator, broods to wetland drawdown and changes in food abundance. The Canadian Field Naturalist 129: 374-378
  • 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 96: 543-554 DOI 10.1007/s10641-012-0040-3


  • 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


  • Caleb Axelrod (PhD)
  • Adam Deleeuw (MSc)



  • David Gislason (PhD)
  • William Jarvis (MSc)