About this Research Topic
Rodents form the most diversified mammalian clade, but our knowledge about this intriguing animal group is centered around a few taxa, such as mice and rats. However, with recent advances in omic research, the molecular basis of extreme niche adaptations starts to unravel even for rodent species that remained largely unexplored in the past.
An exceptional example of rodent diversification is the family Sciuridae (squirrels), the most speciose family after Muridae (murids). With 285 species living across the globe in a range of habitats such as deserts, high altitude and rainforests, their diversity in morphology and size is broad. Squirrels’ lifestyles are extremely diverse - there are climbing, flying and burrowing forms. Distinct species within a single genus can live in extremely different conditions, such as marmots and ground squirrels living from arid to permafrost regions. Along with their outstanding diversity, sciurids play an important role in the formation and function of ecosystems. Many are considered keystone species and ecosystem engineers for their ability to influence the environment and create new habitat niches.
What are the mechanisms for such broad adaptive radiations?
Currently, the underlying biological causes and consequences of diversification of squirrels remain poorly understood. While omic research can help us to understand the contributing factors that lead to this extreme species diversification on various levels, it is crucial to combine omic efforts with behavioral, ecological morphological and anatomical studies to understand the selective forces influencing their evolution. As many members of the Sciuridae possess extreme features in relation to sociality, behavior, climate, metabolism and ecosystems, they are, in fact, model species for the functional and evolutionary underpinnings of unusual and extreme traits. Despite their importance, many populations have already experienced severe fragmentation and decline, mainly due to habitat loss, overhunting and persecution as pests. Some squirrel species, however, are successfully surviving in anthropogenic biotopes.
Here, we argue that understanding the genomic, behavioral and ecological underpinnings of Sciuridae diversification and adaptation are crucial to address our current lack of knowledge of this remarkably diverse animal group and help us to develop conservation strategies. We seek to conceptualize current research efforts in understanding the link between ecosystem adaptation and extreme species diversification, in particular for squirrels that have gained little attention so far. We invite all scientists working on these aspects to submit their findings to our Research Topic entitled “Ecological, Behavioral and Genomic Consequences in the Rodent Family Sciuridae: Why Are Squirrels So Diverse?”.
Keywords: Species diversification, Adaptation, Omic research, Ecology, Behavior, Genome, Squirrels, Keystone species
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