Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award 2019

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Anurag Agrawal

The E. O. Wilson Naturalist Award is awarded annually to an active mid-career 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. A list of previous recipients can be found here.

In 2019, the award was conferred upon Anurag Agrawal, the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies, at Cornell University.

In Chapter 3 of the Origin of Species (“Struggle for existence”) Charles Darwin argued that the primary cause of evolution is antagonistic interactions among species.  Anurag Agrawal’s career has been built on the elaboration of this argument in the context of interactions between plants and insects.  The sum of his life’s work to date is a mapping and fantastic complexity of the ongoing arms race between plants and their diverse chemical and physical defenses against herbivores and the ways herbivores overcome those defenses then turn them into weapons for their own protection against predators.  To this complexity he adds the interactions among different species of herbivores as they compete for the common plant resource.  His research program thus captures the multi-dimensional network of interactions originally envisioned by Darwin, but with the modern dimensions of chemistry, physiology, genetics, epigenetics, phylogenetics and community ecology that shape how these interactions occur.  He embodies the ideal of the “Edward Osborne Wilson Naturalist Award” with his characterization of this complexity, motivated by his observations of natural history.  He expands on this ideal with synthetic reviews that address the underlying principles and create bridges among disciplines.  He has gone even further by making this science accessible to a general audience in the form of a prize winning book – Monarch and Milkweeds.

Dr. Agrawal has sustained a special focus on milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and their specialized herbivores, including monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), aphids (Aphis spp.) and beetles (Tetraopes spp.).    He has developed and deployed research tools for characterizing these interactions at levels that range from microevolutionary studies of populations to macroevolutionary studies of the entire Asclepias genus to even broader studies of flowering plants and insects.  At one level, he and his students and collaborators have performed detailed experimental studies that characterize the details of the physical and chemical defenses plants mount against insects and how the insects deal with them.  This interaction includes assessing the diversity of cardenolides produced by milkweeds and the enzymatic defenses of the insects.  The plant side involves a combination of constitutive and induced responses which are in turn shaped by tradeoffs between them and other features of the plant lifecycle, such as regrowth after herbivore damage.  The insect side includes the enzymatic detoxification of plant poisons, the sequestration and modification of the poisons in their own defense, and their direct and indirect interactions with each other as they consume a shared resource.  At a higher level of complexity, he has explored the consequences of genetic diversity among plants within a population and discovered that there is safety in diversity in the form of reduced herbivore damage.  At yet a higher level of complexity, he has characterized the evolution of defense mechanisms across the dozens of species that comprise the genus Asclepias and characterized the relationship between the evolution of plant defenses and species diversity.

In spanning this range of biological organization, he has characterized the importance of phenotypic plasticity and tradeoffs among different defenses in shaping evolution.  He has amplified our understanding of co-evolution, constraint and convergence in shaping both microevolution and macroevolution.   He has addressed all of these general issues in perspectives, synthetic reviews, symposia at national and international conferences, and special issues in leading journals, often in ways that create bridges among otherwise unconnected areas of endeavor.  He has been a successful mentor to a large number of graduate students and post-docs who have developed independent research programs and gone on to successful careers of their own.  His leadership in promoting science includes serving as a Special Features editor of Ecology and chairing a review of NSF’s Population and Community Ecology panel.  His research has appeared almost exclusively in the most highly ranked journals in our discipline and the most exclusive inter-disciplinary journals.  

Dr. Agrawal’s appreciation of natural history, translation of that appreciation into diverse forms of empirical studies of adaptation and evolution, skilled communication of his ideas to technical and general audiences, and leadership in the scientific community are what define him as this year’s recipient of the Wilson Award.

David Reznick (Chair), Jenn Rudgers, Joseph Travis