American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award 2020

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Tia-Lynn Ashman

The Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award is given annually to an active midcareer scientist who has made significant contributions to the knowledge of a particular ecosystem or group of organisms and who through this work has illuminated key principles of evolutionary biology and an enhanced appreciation of natural history. The recipient of the Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award in 2020 is Tia-Lynn Ashman, Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Pittsburgh.

Tia-Lynn Ashman’s career exemplifies Edward O. Wilson’s approach to science: notice interesting things about organisms and then ask questions about those interesting things.  For Ashman, those interesting things have spanned a wide range: the life history of flowers and floral displays, the interactions of plants with their pollinators, the determination of sex in plants and the evolution of sex chromosomes, and the role of polyploidy in biodiversity at the genomic and phenotypic levels.  In all of this work, Ashman has combined careful field observation, creative thinking, insightful experimentation, and an unrelenting pursuit of true understanding.

Among the strengths of Ashman’s research is that she has integrated these seemingly disparate topics.  They are facets of a research trajectory that has synthesized ecological and evolutionary patterns at levels from the gene and chromosome to the floral phenotype itself.  Ashman’s early work was on the different resource use patterns of different sexes and the processes governing the dynamics of sexual polymorphisms.  This work led her to study how plants interact with their pollinators and how those interactions shape the characteristics of their flowers.  Focusing on sexual polymorphisms and the expression of sex via floral traits led to the study of sex determination and the evolution of sex chromosomes.  Ashman’s recent work on strawberries has revealed how different ploidy levels affect phenotypes and interactions with pollinators.  

Ashman’s work has made evolutionary biologists think differently about what they see, or thought they saw.  A recent example is her discovery of a novel explanation for patterns of ultraviolet light absorption in flowers.  For a very long time, naturalists have known that the outer petals of flowers reflect UV light while the center of the corolla absorbs UV light.  To insects whose vision ranges into the UV wavelengths, the flowers have so-called nectar guides that lead the pollinator to the nectar.  However, Ashman’s extensive study of geographic and elevational patterns of UV reflectance and absorption has shown that the UV phenotype of flowers also fulfills an adaptive function of reducing UV damage to pollen.  This novel result is only the latest of Ashman’s surprising discoveries about nature.

Along with her achievements, Tia-Lynn Ashman is also a champion of bringing science to the public, whether in the K-12 classroom or through outreach via public appearances and interviews.  She continues the arc of scientific leadership and public engagement that defined Edward O. Wilson’s career and is a worthy recipient of this award.

The Edward O. Wilson Award Committee: Joseph Travis (chair), Ingrid Parker, Daniel Simberloff.