2016 American Naturalist Student Paper Award Recipient

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The caterpillar of the light knot grass moth (Acronicta menyanthidis) belongs to the very large radiation of plant feeding Lepidoptera. However, many groups of plant-feeding insects are species-poor relative to their non-plant feeding relatives. (Credit: Peter J. Mayhew)

The American Naturalist editors have selected, for the 2016 Student Paper Award, "Diet Evolution and Clade Richness in Hexapoda: a Phylogenetic Study of Higher Taxa," by James Rainford (student) and Peter Mayhew of University of York, England. 

The Editors considered over 60 eligible articles. We weighted diverse factors in choosing the winner, including the paper's topic, originality, impact, and more generally the extent to which it exemplified the goals of The American Naturalist: "to publish papers that are of broad interest to the readership, to pose a new and significant program or introduce a novel subject to the readership, to develop conceptual unification, and to change the way people think about the topic of the manuscript."

After extensive discussion among us, and also with Susan Kalisz and Troy Day (who had handled many of the eligible papers that appeared in 2015), the winning paper easily rose to the top. Rainford and Mayhew's paper leverages a massive new data set on relationships in the Hexapoda, as well as newer phylogenetic approaches, to reexamine conventional wisdom about relative diversity and diversification of clades in association with diet. It is widely accepted that herbivorous insect clades are unusually species-rich. A great deal of effort has been expended in recent years to explain the ecological and evolutionary processes that might produce this pattern. In his graduate work, James Rainford has comprehensively challenged what we thought we knew. The winning paper synthesizes concepts across macroevolution, diversification, coevolution, specialization, dietary evolution, and basic insect ecology. Not all readers will accept the authors' conclusions, but we can all agree that this is an exceptional fine example of work that fits the Am Nat ideal of challenging how we think. It's particularly fitting, or perhaps ironic, that the conventional wisdom he challenges regarding dietary templates for insect diversification was given its conceptual foundations in another Am Nat paper (Mitter et al. 1988).

A summary of Rainford and Mayhew is here: https://amnat.org/an/newpapers/DecRainford.html

Judith L. Bronstein
Yannis Michalakis
Alice Winn