Introducing a new Editorial Board member – Simon Baeckens

As an evolutionary zoologist fascinated by the life around managing a successful and important journal in the field of organismal biology, I am thrilled and truly honoured to announce that I will be joining the Editorial Board of Journal of Zoology.

If one would ask me to summarize my field of research in bullet-points, I would most likely provide the following:

Evolutionary ecology

Chemical and visual communication

Functional morphology

Island biology

Lizards and snakes

Phylogenetic comparative methods

However, as a fresh JZO Editorial Board member, it seems only fair to briefly introduce myself and my work.

Born and brought up in the north of Belgium, I studied Biology at the University of Antwerp. After finishing my Masters in Evolutionary and Behavioural Biology, I was fortunate enough to start as a doctoral candidate in the Laboratory of Functional Morphology, under the wings of the excellent scholar and tutor Prof. Dr. Raoul Van Damme. My PhD research focused on the evolution of chemical communication in lizards, where I quantified the diversity in the design of the lizard chemical communication system, and examined the phylogenetic constraints and ecological drivers that influence the evolution of this diversity. I approached this question by integrating the three key components of communication: emitting system (in the lizard’s case: secretion glands) → signal design (chemical composition) → receiving system (vomeronasal-lingual morphology).

Simon Baeckens

While the majority of my research focuses on lacertid lizards and the use of phylogenetic comparative methods, I consider other squamate species and research approaches too. For example, in a recent study published in Journal of Zoology, my colleagues and I investigated the implications of molluscivory for head size and bite capacity in a burrowing worm lizard. Head size is believed to be constrained in limbless fossorial animals, due to the limitations imposed while burrowing, therefore selecting for small heads and, consequently, low bite forces. However, in the burrowing amphisbaenian Trogonophis wiegmanni, we established that small head sizes have remarkably high relative bite capacities. Such biting may be important for their molluscivorous diet. Yet, the wide head necessary to bite hard imposes a limitation towards an alternative snail-feeding strategy: entering the snail’s shell via the shell opening and eating the flesh from inside. Our results showed that head size, and consequently bite force, increases the number of gastropods that can be consumed by ‘shell-crushing’, but reduces the number of prey items that can be consumed by ‘shell-entering’, and vice versa. This study implies that the cranial design of (molluscivorous) limbless burrowers may therefore not only evolve under constraints for efficient soil penetration, but also through selection for diet.

Further, and probably due to my wide range of interest, I am (or have been) involved in projects on lizard vocalization, insularity and adaptive melanism in lizards, and visual communication in anole lizards.

While I’m still a research associate at the Functional Morphology Lab (University of Antwerp), I’m currently at Harvard University (MA, USA) where I’m doing a postdoc in the lab of Jonathan Losos. There, and in close collaboration with Prof. Dr. Duncan J. Irschick of the Center of Evolutionary Materials (University of Massachusetts, USA), I will be investigating the evolution of scale micro-ornamentation in lizards. Using scanning-electron microscopy, I attempt to quantify the morphological variation in the scale micro-ornamentation of anole lizards, and look at patterns of variation among and within species. By comparing traits of scale morphology across species facing different environmental challenges, I can gauge how universal —or how idiosyncratic— particular design solutions are. In a next step, I plan to examine the functional significance of scale micro-ornamentation (and its diversity) by taking a more experimental and biomechanical approach.

As a Board Member for Journal of Zoology, I will have the privilege to get in touch with a vast array of research topics, and to familiarize myself with novel ideas and interesting study systems. Moreover, I am really looking forward contributing to the Hidden Gems section, and the JZO Podcasts. In sum, it is with great motivation and enthusiasm that I will start my term as a JZO Editorial Board member.

Simon Baeckens

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