Scientific drilling and biological evolution in ancient lakes: Lessons learned and recommendations for the future

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28 Scopus citations


Scientific drilling to recover sediment core and fossil samples is a promising approach to increasing our understanding of species evolution in ancient lakes. Most lake drilling efforts to date have focused on paleoclimate reconstruction. However, it is clear from the excellent fossil preservation and high temporal resolution typical of lake beds that significant advances in evolutionary biology can be made through drill core studies coordinated with phylogenetic work on appropriate taxa. Geological records can be used to constrain the age of specific lakes and the timing of evolutionarily significant events (such as lake level fluctuations and salinity crises). Fossil data can be used to test speciation and biogeographic hypotheses and flesh out phylogenetic trees, using a better-resolved fossil record to estimate timing of phylogenetic divergences. The extraordinary preservation of many fossils in anoxic lake beds holds the hope of collecting fossil DNA from the same body fossils that improve our understanding of morphological character evolution and adaptation. Moreover, fossils allow calibration of molecular clocks, which are currently largely inferential. Lake Malawi Drilling Project results provide some guideposts on what might be expected in a drilling project for studies of evolution. The extreme variability in lake level and environmental history that most ancient lakes experience (exemplified by the Lake Malawi record) demonstrates that no one drilling locality is likely to provide a complete record of phylogenetic history for a radiating lineage. Evolutionary biologists should take an active role in the design of drilling projects, which typically have interdisciplinary objectives, to ensure their sampling needs will be met by whatever sites in a lake are ultimately drilled.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-25
Number of pages23
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • Ancient lakes
  • Paleolimnology
  • Scientific drilling
  • Speciation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science


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