Alex Smith

Alex Smith
Associate Professor
Phone number: 
519-824-4120 x52007
SSC 2464
SSC 2409/2410

I am from the small town Douglas in the heart of the Ottawa Valley, Ontario, Canada. It was here in the rivers, streams and marshes of Renfrew County that I first thought I wanted to be a biologist - it was as a volunteer in Costa Rica in 1991 that I knew. My research today is informed by, and about, each place. I obtained a B.Sc. (Hons) and an M.Sc. (1998) in Biology from Trent University in Peterborough Ontario, and then moved to Montreal, Quebec for my Ph.D. (2004) at McGill University. I received an FQAR Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the Quebec provincial government that I took to the University of Guelph, and in 2008 was hired as an assistant professor in Molecular Ecology at the University of Guelph. As a biologist, it is important to me to work in both the field and laboratory to integrate field and molecular biology into questions of ecological and evolutionary importance to conservation. I am currently working on multiple projects that how biodiversity and phylogenetic community structure are changed across natural and anthropogenic gradients, the co-evolutionary ecology of host/parasitoid/symbiont relationships and the phylogeography of both insects and amphibians.

  • PhD McGill University 2004 (David M. Green)
  • MSc Trent University 1998 (Michael Berrill and Carolyn Kapron)
  • BSc Trent University 1996

The focus of my research program is to better understand the contemporary distribution of hyperdiverse, and often cryptic, species of insects across major ecological gradients in tropical and temperate environments. My program is built upon projects designed to explore the causes and consequences of biodiversity across elevational, latitudinal and disturbance gradients and builds on long-term collections using phylogenetic, functional and physiological measures.

Species in high-elevation and high-latitude environments are being dramatically affected by climate change. While the largest amplitude changes are occurring in high-latitude locales - the most rapidly changing environments are tropical high-elevation communities. Here, it is hypothesised that long-term temperature stability has resulted in both high diversity and small species ranges - each highly vulnerable to the coming rapid changes in temperature and precipitation. It is often presumed, but rarely tested, that the highly stressful environment in which these tropical sky-island species live results in a strict filter on what branches of a regional phylogenetic pool will survive. While both biotic and abiotic factors interact to select the species found at any one location, the stress-dominance hypothesis predicts that with increasing environmental stress, the relative importance of environmental filtering increases and competition decreases. One method of testing this hypothesis is the use of phylogenetic community structure models. However, in a large-scale meta-analysis (Smith, in review) I have shown that, although intuitive, the expectation for phylogenetic clustering at high elevations is not always supported by data. From an ecological and evolutionary perspective, this reinforces how important it is to support intuition with data.

Much of my research program is based on elevational and disturbance gradients within the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG - Two papers have already come out of this work (Smith et al 2013; Smith et al 2014), one is in review and a further four (with students as lead authors) are in preparation for review in 2014. Much of my research takes advantage of more than five years of intensive (and ongoing) insect and climatological sampling conducted on three 1,500 m elevational transects in the ACG.


  • What are the relative importance of competition, niche and neutral dynamics in stressful environments such as high latitude and elevation (cold and dry, cold and wet respectively) as well as low elevations (hot and dry).
  • What adaptations are possessed by high-elevation species?
  • Are mid-elevation or low-elevation species likely to invade drying high-elevation locations?
  • How will spatially restricted and phylogenetically clustered species respond to coming climate changes?
  • Do functional diversity patterns mirror phylogenetic diversity?
  • How is phylogenetic community structure affected by trophic level?
  • Smith, M. Alex, D. H. Janzen and W. Hallwachs (2014) Diversity and phylogenetic community structure of ants along a Costa Rican elevational gradient. Ecography 37: 720-731. DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0587.2013.00631.x
  • Smith, M. A., Hallwachs, W, Janzen DH, and R. Blanco Segura (2013) DNA barcoding a collection of ants (Formicidae) from Isla del Coco, Costa Rica. Florida Entomologist. 96 (4), 1500-1507.
  • Smith, M. Alex; Fernández-Triana, José; Eveleigh, Eldon; Gómez, Jaime; Guclu, Coskun; Hallwachs, Winnie; Hebert, Paul; Hrcek, Jan; Huber, John; Janzen, Daniel; Mason, Peter; Miller, Scott; Quicke, Donald; Rodriguez, Josephine; Rougerie, Rodolphe; Shaw, Mark; Varkonyi, Gergely; Ward, Darren; Whitfield, James and Alejandro Zaldivar-Riveron. (2013) DNA barcoding and the taxonomy of Microgastrinae wasps (Hymenoptera, Braconidae): impacts after eight years and nearly 20,000 sequences. Molecular Ecology Resources. 13(2):168-76.
  • Rodriguez, Josephine; Fernández-Triana, José; Smith, M. Alex; Janzen, Daniel; Hallwachs, Winnie; Erwin, Terry and Whitfield, James. (2013) Extrapolations from field studies and known faunas converge on dramatically increased estimates of global microgastrine parasitoid wasp species richness (Hymenoptera: Braconidae). Insect Conservation and Biodiversity. 6: 530-536.
  • Smith, M. Alex Bertrand, C., Crosby, K., Eveleigh, E.S., Fernández-Triana, J., Fisher, B.L., Gibbs, J., Hajibabaei,M., Hallwachs, W., Hind, K., Hrcek, J., Huang, D-W., Janda, M., Janzen, D. H., Li, Y., Miller, S.E., Packer, L., Quicke, D., Ratnasingham, S., Rodriguez, J., Rougerie, R., Shaw, M.R., Sheffield, C., Stahlhut, J.K., Steinke, D., Whitfield, J., Wood, M., Zhou, X. 28 authors listed alphabetically after 1st. (2012) Wolbachia and Barcoding Insects: Problems, Patterns and Potential. PLoSONE 7(5):e36514.
  • Fernández-Triana*, J. Smith, M. Alex*, Bodreault, C., Goulet, H., Hebert PDN, Smith AC, and Roughley, R. [deceased] (2011). A poorly known high-latitude parasitoid wasp community: unexpected diversity and dramatic changes through time. PLoS ONE 6(8): e23719 (*these authors made equal contributions and are considered first co-authors).
  • Smith, M. Alex, Eveleigh, ES, McCann, KS, Merilo, M, McCarthy, PC, Van Rooyen, KI. (2011) Barcoding a quantified food web: crypsis, concepts, ecology and hypotheses. PLoS ONE 6(7): e14424.
  • Hrcek, Jan, Miller, Scott, Quicke, Donald, and Smith, M. Alex. (2011) Molecular detection of trophic links in a complex insect host-parasitoid food web. Molecular Ecology Resources. 11(5):786-94.
  • Rougerie, R., Smith, M. Alex, Fernandez- Triana,J., Lopez-Vaamonde, C., and Hebert, PDN. (2011) Molecular analysis of parasitoid linkages (MAPL): gut contents of adult parasitoid wasps reveal larval host. Molecular Ecology. 20: 179-186.
  • Smith, M. Alex, and B. L. Fisher. (2009) Invasions, DNA barcodes, and rapid biodiversity assessment using ants of Mauritius. Frontiers in Zoology. 6:31.
  • BIOL*1070 Biodiversity
  • ZOO*2700 Invertebrate Morphology & Evolution
  • BIOL*4610 Arctic Ecology
  • Spencer Monkton (PhD)
  • Anna Solecki (PhD)
  • Aaron Fairweather (MSc)
  • Chris Ho (MSc)
  • Stefaniya Kamenova (Post doctoral Fellow)