Nick Matzke, Computational Biogeographer

This photo is me visiting “Darwin’s Forest”, fossil Araucaria in Mendoza, Argentina, in the eastern foothills of the Andes.

I am a computational biogeographer. Biogeography is the study of where species live, and why. Traditionally, the “why” has been divided into “Ecological Biogeography” and “Historical Biogeography.” Ecological Biogeography has focused on environmental and ecological controls on distribution, such as temperature and precipitation. “Historical Biogeography” has focused on how geographic ranges evolve on geological timescales and across phylogenetic trees, primarily dealing with rare dispersal and vicariance events.

I believe that it is high time that these two traditions were re-integrated, not just in verbal models and interpretation, but with formal probabilistic models, using the computational tools of statistical phylogenetics. My work focuses on building these tools, and using them to answer Big Questions in evolution and biogeography.

I develop computational methods that biologists can use to infer the biogeographical history of their study group. Decades ago, biology and biogeography could be done by studying species really hard, and then coming up with a “gestalt” guess at the phylogenetic relationships, evolutionary history, biogeographical processes, etc.

However, in the 21st century, what we want is statistical testing of our hypotheses. Furthermore, we don’t want to test the crude null models available in traditional statistics (“Are these two averages different? Give me a p-value!”).  Instead, we want to test actual mechanistic models that include the processes that we think have produced the data we observe. When the data are geographic ranges, the processes are things like dispersal, vicariance, speciation, and extinction, among others. These require specialist software and custom models. Working on these is a large part of my work.  This includes my R package, BioGeoBEARS ( ), but also other work in phylogenetic dating methods, bioinformatics, and biogeography.

As a “methods person”, I get to work on all kinds of datasets. I have coauthored papers on everything from cyanobacteria to assassin spiders to fishes to dinosaurs.  I do, on occasion, get out in the field, and sometimes gather my own data – for example, I manually coded 400+ characters on each of 80 representatives of an evolving tradition of antievolution legislation (Matzke 2016, Science), which has been copied from state-to-state in the U.S. since 2004 ( data and code is freely available here: ).

But, normally, I work with already published data.  These days, data and methods are so complex that I think it is important to have specialists in both. Modern research requires both advanced data and advanced methods. There are a few people out there who complain about “data parasites,” people who do research using previously-published data. But, strangely, no one ever complains about “methods parasites”, even though almost every published scientific paper in ecology/evolution is using computational methods that the authors did not develop from scratch by themselves!  Science is a collaborative, international process of producing data and methods and sharing them for the public good. And I think that’s part of why science is fantastic!

My biogeographical work is aimed at more than just estimating the biogeographical history of a particular group.  The point of constructing formal probabilistic models, and statistically testing them, is to help us understand the important processes that have produced our data. I want to measure the relative importance of dispersal and vicariance, the relationship between geographic distance and dispersal probability, the importance of various traits for dispersal, etc. Eventually I want to include paleoclimates, the uncertainty in our estimates of plate tectonic history, climatic niche evolution etc. (and do all of this in a formal Bayesian statistical framework).

I think that a better understanding of biogeographical processes, especially dispersal and climatic niche evolution, has obvious relevance for predicting the long-term fate of species under various future climate change scenarios.

Therefore, my favorite part about being a scientists is discovering new things! Solving problems!

To any young scientists, if you want to become a professional scientist, ask yourself these questions, and keep asking them:

  1. Are you doing what you most want to be doing? I.e., what you find most interesting, and what you would probably be doing in your free time anyway if you had some other job?
  2. Are you prepared for 4-6 years of graduate school, followed by (probably) 4+ years of postdoc/job searching?
  3. Does your research have some vague form of attractiveness / interest to some kind of community both in science and outside? What’s your “meal ticket”? To get postdocs and a permanent job, you have to develop some kind of “thing” that you are known for – a model system, a kind of analysis, something. What makes you stick out from the pack?  You don’t have to figure this out at the beginning of graduate school, but you should definitely figure it out by the end.
  4. Do you have some kind of backup job idea if the become-a-professor thing doesn’t work out? Almost any scientist has various skills that can be used outside of the university – lab techniques, field techniques, literature review, technical writing, statistics/data analysis/graphical data display, R coding, etc. If you have some kind of notion of 4, it really reduces the stress behind figuring out 1-3.

If you can say “yes” to 1-4, then you should stay in science. If not, there are easier ways to make money, and they include things like 9-5 hours and regular vacations!  It’s not a “failure” to leave science, it benefits yourself and the world to take your scientific skills out into the world outside of academia.

That’s my advice at the moment at least! I’ve got one year of funding left in my current postdoc, and after 5 or so job interviews I still haven’t landed one!  I feel like it will happen eventually, but I  still think about option “4” regularly!  Basically, permanent professor jobs in biology are ridiculously hard to get, and no one should sugar-coat that for young scientists!

Nick Matzke is a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow in the Moritz Lab at the Centre for Biodiversity Analysis (CBA), Division of Ecology and Evolution, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University. To learn more about Nick, visit his website here

The plaque at Darwin’s Forest.
Read more about what Darwin wrote about this forest in the Voyage of the Beagle:

    The geology of the surrounding country is very curious. The Uspallata range is separated from the main Cordillera by a long narrow plain or basin, like those so often mentioned in Chile, but higher, being six thousand feet above the sea. This range has nearly the same geographical position with respect to the Cordillera, which the gigantic Portillo line has, but it is of a totally different origin: it consists of various kinds of submarine lava, alternating with volcanic sandstones and other remarkable sedimentary deposits; the whole having a very close resemblance to some of the tertiary beds on the shores of the Pacific. From this resemblance I expected to find silicified wood, which is generally characteristic of those formations. I was gratified in a very extraordinary manner. In the central part of the range, at an elevation of about seven thousand feet, I observed on a bare slope some snow-white projecting columns. These were petrified trees, eleven being silicified, and from thirty to forty converted into coarsely-crystallized white calcareous spar. They were abruptly broken off, the upright stumps projecting a few feet above the ground. The trunks measured from three to five feet each in circumference. They stood a little way apart from each other, but the whole formed one group. Mr. Robert Brown has been kind enough to examine the wood: he says it belongs to the fir tribe, partaking of the character of the Araucarian family, but with some curious points of affinity with the yew. The volcanic sandstone in which the trees were embedded, and from the lower part of which they must have sprung, had accumulated in successive thin layers around their trunks; and the stone yet retained the impression of the bark. It required little geological practice to interpret the marvelous story which this scene at once unfolded; though I confess I was at first so much astonished, that I could scarcely believe the plainest evidence. I saw the spot where a cluster of fine trees once waved their branches on the shores of the Atlantic, when that ocean (now driven back 700 miles) came to the foot of the Andes. I saw that they had sprung from a volcanic soil which had been raised above the level of the sea, and that subsequently this dry land, with its upright trees, had been let down into the depths of the ocean. In these depths, the formerly dry land was covered by sedimentary beds, and these again by enormous streams of submarine lava—one such mass attaining the thickness of a thousand feet; and these deluges of molten stone and aqueous deposits five times alternately had been spread out. The ocean which received such thick masses, must have been profoundly deep; but again the subterranean forces exerted themselves, and I now beheld the bed of that ocean, forming a chain of mountains more than seven thousand feet in height. Nor had those antagonist forces been dormant, which are always at work wearing down the surface of the land: the great piles of strata had been intersected by many wide valleys, and the trees, now changed into silex, were exposed projecting from the volcanic soil, now changed into rock, whence formerly, in a green and budding state, they had raised their lofty heads. Now, all is utterly irreclaimable and desert; even the lichen cannot adhere to the stony casts of former trees. Vast, and scarcely comprehensible as such changes must ever appear, yet they have all occurred within a period, recent when compared with the history of the Cordillera; and the Cordillera itself is absolutely modern as compared with many of the fossiliferous strata of Europe and America.

Basically, Darwin came upon a fossil forest, and interpreted it into an entire vision of an ancient coastal forest that was sunk beneath the ocean, buried under thousands of feet of sediment, uplifted as the Andes rose, then uncovered for him to find. His poetic statement here is part of his whole geological interpretation of the Andes, which is one of the major achievements of the Voyage of the Beagle, and fundamental to understanding Darwin’s later approach to biology. Darwin notes that he took some of the wood with him, and I think many other pieces must have been taken over the years, because this was the only stump we could find, and it was a much less impressive specimen (no bark/rings that we could see) compared to the others.

Leave a Reply