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University of Ottawa

 

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Mount  Phan Xi Păng, Vietnam, 2015.

Photographing Sumatroscirpus rupestris Lév.-Bourret & J.R.Starr, a new species and the first time the genus was recorded outside of Sumatra over 2,400 km away (see PhD research of Étienne Léveillé-Bourret below).

Dr. Julian R. Starr

Professor,

University of Ottawa

(Office: 286 Gendron)

 

President,

Canadian Botanical Association/

L’Association Botanique du Canada

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Mailing Address:

Biology Department, University of Ottawa, 30 Marie Curie, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1N 6N5. (Directions to office)

Tel: (613) 562-5800 ext. 6100

Fax: (613) 562-5486

E-mail: jstarr@uottawa.ca

 

Laboratory:

Centre for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics (CAREG)

CAREG 313, 20 Marie-Curie

Tel: (613) 562-5800 ext. 2068


Research Interests:

 

My research is focused on Systematics, the science that names, classifies and determines the evolutionary relationships of organisms. The basic goals of systematics are to discover biodiversity and to arrange it into predictive phylogenetic classifications (think genealogical). These classifications provide a comparative framework for testing evolutionary, biogeographic, and ecological hypotheses and they are the basis upon which informed conservation decisions are made. In other words, the importance of systematics is that it provides the units (species, families, etc.) and the means (classification, phylogeny) to make valid comparisons in biology. To resolve such diverse subjects, our laboratory uses both traditional methods like anatomy and morphology in addition to modern molecular techniques (e.g., DNA Sanger and Next Generation Sequencing, microsatellites, fragment analyses, etc.).

Family Cyperaceae:

Although I work on all types of vascular plants, and occasionally algae and insects, my primary focus is on species from the sedge family (Cyperaceae), a truly remarkable group characterized by its exceptional diversity (ca. 5,500 species), varied habitats (deserts to rain forests), unusual cytology (2n = 12 to 112) and diverse biogeographical patterns (e.g., Gondwanan, bipolar). My long-term objectives in this family are: (1) to discover the evolutionary relationships of Cyperaceae clades; (2) to reveal historical patterns of character evolution and phytogeography within sedges; and (3) to produce predictive classifications that can be used by scientists, conservationists and the general public alike.

Some Current Projects:

(All these projects offer numerous opportunities for graduate and postdoctoral work)

 

(1) Systematics of Cyperaceae:  I started my career focused on Carex and its tribe Cariceae, two taxa that are so morphologically peculiar that their nearest relatives have been the subject of speculation for over 100 years. One day in the field in California in 2006, I saw Eriophorum criniger (A. Gray) Beetle (=Scirpus criniger A. Gray) and I was immediately convinced not only that it was not an Eriophorum or a Scirpus, but it could even be a new genus and maybe the sister to Carex. My former M.Sc. student Claire Gilmour took on the initial challenge naming not only a new genus, Calliscirpus C.N. Gilmour, J.R. Starr & Naczi, but even a new species, C. brachythrix. The second plant on the top left of my webpage is the new species, and from the picture you can see the genus is among the most beautiful and striking to be segregated from Scirpus (the Greek prefix Calli- means ‘beautiful’). Étienne Léveillé-Bourret then arrived to continue this research for a PhD in 2013 by looking at the entire clade that contains Calliscirpus, tribe Cariceae and their relatives, which includes the genus Khaosokia, and various genera in tribes Scirpeae and Dulichieae. In a series of six papers (see Publications), he discovered four new tribes including the first new Cyperaceae tribe in 29 years (Sumatroscirpeae), a new genus (Rhodoscirpus, named for Rosa Guaglianone, the Greek prefix Rhodo- means ‘rose-like’) and a new species, Sumatroscirpus rupestris. Moreover, his studies highlighted the extraordinary conservation importance of tribes Khaosokieae (~46 MY old lineage, 1 sp.), Calliscirpeae (~41 MY old, 2 spp.) and Sumatroscirpeae (~36 MY old, 4 spp.), and stunningly, he determined that Sumatroscirpus, which was once thought to be monotypic and endemic to Sumatra, was in fact a genus consisting of 4 extremely rare species, two of which were found >2400 km away in Vietnam, Myanmar and China. However, his most amazing discovery was that Sumatroscirpus was sister to Carex, a cosmopolitan genus with more species than 92% of all plant families. All future phylogenetic or evolutionary studies on Carex should now use Sumatroscirpus to root trees and infer evolutionary change. He has done so much that I am now turning to completely new lineages. This fall, I will be on sabbatical at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to work with Dr. Isabel Larridon on a Hyb-Seq project to resolve the relationships of Fuireneae (I might even see Étienne again!).

(2) Phylogeny and evolution of Carex and tribe Cariceae:  This is ongoing research that I have been working on since my very first publication as first author in 1999 (Starr et al. 1999). In 2009, I published a review on the subject with Bruce Ford in The Botanical Review (Starr & Ford 2009) where we highlighted the poor representation of Asian taxa in former phylogenies despite their often peculiar morphology and their key phylogenetic position as sister to several major lineages in Cariceae. This led us to apply for two National Geographic Research Grants to travel to Vietnam in 2012 & 2015 where we were able to collect many key taxa for understanding the evolution of Carex. With our Vietnamese colleagues, Nguyen Thi Kim Thanh (Hanoi University of Science) and Anh Tài (Botany Vietnam Group), and with the help of Jack Regalado (formerly of the Missouri Botanical Garden) we were able to rediscover many morphologically unusual species that had not been collected for more than 70 years. In fact, several species were only known from their holotype or just a handful of collections. As you might expect, the results of this research have been stunning. We have discovered three new early diverging lineages in Carex (Starr et al. 2015; the "Hypolytroides Clade", the "Dissitiflora Lineage" and the "Small Core Carex Clade"), multiple new Carex species (Ford et al. 2017), and on one of these trips, Étienne discovered Sumatroscirpus rupestris (see above), the species and sample that would conclusively demonstrate that Sumatroscirpus was sister to Carex. This supported the long-held hypothesis that Vietnam and Southeast Asia could be a possible “cradle” for the genus Carex. In 2020, we are going back to Vietnam to further study these peculiar Carex and to better understand the morphology, ecology and cytology of Sumatroscirpus. One can only dream about what we may find this time! Do you want to come along?

(3) Biogeography of sedges:  Léon Croizat (1952) once said that you could teach an entire course on phytogeography using only examples from Carex and its allies in tribe Cariceae. There are sedge species and groups with almost every imaginable biogeographic pattern (e.g., amphiatlantic, Gondwanan, bipolar). What forces created such extraordinary distributions? Several of my former students have worked on the systematics and phylogeography of two extraordinary arctic-alpine groups Carex nardina (Wayne Sawtell) and Carex capitata (Tamara Villaverde Hidalgo), but there many more wonderful groups to study. So far we have travelled from the arctic to Tierra del Fuego on these projects and who knows where next. These are collaborations that I am conducting with my colleagues Modesto Luceño (Pablo de Olavide University, Sevilla) and Leo Bruederle (University of Colorado, Denver), amongst others (see Publications).

(4) Sedge DNA Barcoding: So far we have completed two research projects, a preliminary study to determine which of the proposed chloroplast barcoding loci would be best for sedges (Starr et al. 2009; PDF on Publications Page) and a paper in Molecular Ecology Resources that demonstrates 100% species resolution when a regional approach to DNA barcoding is taken for the sedges of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (project led by former Honour’s student Jessica LeClerc-Blain; LeClerc-Blain et al. 2010). The most ambitious project of them all, the goal of barcoding all 483 species of Carex and Kobresia recognised in the Flora of North America, North of Mexico, has not been published (project led by my former graduate student Brianna Chouinard in collaboration with Robert Naczi at the New York Botanical Garden), but it generated enormous amounts of data that we continue to use and publish (e.g., Jiménez-Mejías et al. 2016; ~1500 matK sequences or three for nearly all North American Carex). I am currently searching for students that would be interested in working on some of the taxonomic problems that were highlighted by her research. Would you like to name a new species?

And many others…

(If you are interested in learning more, please contact me)