Leslie J. Rissler

Leslie_Rissler Professor

Phone: (205) 348-4052


Dr. Rissler’s Lab Webpage

Leslie Rissler received a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Virginia in 2000 and completed her postdoctoral research at the University of California at Berkley. She was appointed Assistant Professor at The University of Alabama in 2003. Dr. Rissler has been an Associate Professor since 2009 and also serves as Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles for the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama.

Research Interests

Our research program is highly integrative and combines aspects of ecology, evolutionary biology, biogeography, systematics, and conservation biology. We are interested in both the biotic and abiotic factors influencing species’ ranges – in the past and in the future. We combine genetic analyses, species distribution modeling, spatially explicit landscape analyses, and experimental ecology to understand mechanisms impacting the natural distributions of species. Our goal is to understand the processes driving the spatial patterning of biodiversity and use that information in a predictive framework, which is especially important in a world experiencing rapid climate change. This work has both basic and applied importance. We are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF-DEB, NSF-DBI, NSF-GSS), the USDA & USDI, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources of Alabama.

Much of our current work focuses on three areas:  Biogeography of Stress, Comparative Phylogeography and Systematics of Amphibians and Reptiles, and Evolutionary Ecology of Range Limits.

Biogeography of Stress:  To understand the forces that define where particular species or individuals live, we combine genetic analyses, ecological experiments, and information on natural distributions. Our recent research has taken an integrative approach combining physiology, genetics, and correlational and mechanistic niche modeling to understand how populations respond to environmental perturbations across geographic space. This work was recently funded by NSF. We use ecological niche modeling to predict environmental quality across a species range and examine how organismal traits (at multiple levels and across multiple life history stages) vary across environmental gradients and latitude. We also collaborate with colleagues to examine the biogeography of disease as a natural stressor in populations.

Comparative Phylogeography and Systematics of Amphibians and Reptiles:  A main goal of comparative phylogeography is to examine the evolutionary history of multiple species in order to determine the processes that have driven patterns of speciation and biodiversity across a landscape. We use GIS to pinpoint suture zones in amphibians across the United States or areas of incongruence between species-level and lineage-level hotspots. This work helps us understand the spatial patterning of biodiversity and areas that may have helped drive lineage diversification across multiple species. We have ongoing projects that quantify ecological divergence with measures of reproductive isolation to examine the role of ecology and lineage divergence. Sometimes our investigations into the spatial patterning of genetic diversity in natural populations of amphibians results in the discovery of new species. We also study the conservation genetics and ecological requirements of species endemic to Alabama including the Red Hills Salamander and Flattened Musk Turtle. This work is done to understand the causes and consequences of endangerment and decline.

Evolutionary Ecology of Range Limits:  One of the most oft-cited macroecological hypotheses in biogeography is the Core-Periphery Hypothesis (CPH), which predicts that populations located at the periphery of a species’ range increasingly experience unfavorable ecological conditions. Ultimately, as species’ ecological limits are reached populations become spatially isolated and suffer fitness declines that mark the edge of the range. Theoretical models suggest that there may be greater phenotypic plasticity at these marginal habitats at the range edge. We are testing whether long-term exposure to conditions at the limits of a species’ physiological tolerances (like those experienced at the range edge) select for alterations in life history traits such as size and age at metamorphosis and the physiological controls of these traits by the neuroendocrine stress axis. We conduct large reciprocal transplant experiments and complement the work with common garden experiments.

Joining the Laboratory

Motivated undergraduate and graduate students interested in joining my laboratory are open to work on any organism that is appropriate to address the question of interest. Both basic and applied approaches to questions in conservation, biogeography, evolution, or ecology are appropriate. I expect all students to incorporate both ecological and genetic approaches in their work.

Representative Publications

Newman, C. E., J. A. Feinberg, L. J. Rissler, J. Burger, and H. B. Shaffer. 2012. A new species of leopard frog (Anura: Ranidae) from the urban northeastern U.S. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 63:445-455. *Press in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and 200+ outlets.

Apodaca, J. J., L. J. Rissler, and J. C. Godwin. 2012. Population structure and gene flow in a heavily disturbed habitat: Implications for the management of the imperiled Red Hills salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti). Conservation Genetics 13:913-923.

Angert, A. L. L. G. Crozier, L. J. Rissler, S. E. Gilman, J. J. Tewksbury, and A. J. Chunco. 2011. Do species traits predict recent shifts at expanding range edges? Ecology Letters 14:677-689.

Rissler, L. J., and W. H. Smith. 2010. Amphibian contact zone and phylogeographical break hotspots across the continental United States. Molecular Ecology 19:5404-5416.

Buckley, L. B., M. C. Urban, M. J. Angilletta, L. G. Crozier, L. J. Rissler, and M. W. Sears. 2010. Can mechanism inform species’ distribution models? Ecology Letters 13:1041-1054.

Hickerson, M. J., B. C. Carstens, J. Cavender-Bares, K. A. Crandall, C. H. Graham, J. Johnson, L. J. Rissler, P. F. Victoriano, and A. D. Yoder. 2010. Phylogeography’s past, present, and future: 10 years after Avise, 2000. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 54:291-301.