California Academy of Sciences - To Explore, Explain, and Protect the Natural World

Robin Lawson

Department Head
Osher Laboratory for Molecular Systematics

A.A., Canada College (1974); B.S., M.A., California State University/Hayward (1976, 1978); Ph.D., Louisiana State University (1985). Postdoctoral Fellow, Biochemistry/Molecular Biology, Louisiana State University (1985-86); Research Affiliate, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University (1986 - ); Research Scientist, California Academy of Sciences (1986-92); Department Head, Osher Laboratory for Molecular Systematics (1992- ). Member: Sigma Xi, American Genetic Association, Societas Europaea Herpetologica, Herpetologists League, Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Freshwater Biological Association, British Herpetological Society, Society for Systematic Biology, Society for the Study of Evolution, Institute of Biology, American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

I have had an almost lifelong interest in herpetology in all of its aspects, but especially the natural history of lizards and snakes. However, for the last twenty years my research efforts have concentrated on the application of molecular methods to problems of phylogenetic systematics, population genetics, zoogeography and conservation biology.

My first major attempt to apply molecular characters to a systematics problem, over twenty years ago, involved the West Coast garter snakes, genus Thamnophis. The unraveling of the relationships of this group of snakes had seemed intractable. Snakes, because of their lack of appendages and therefor fewer numbers of morphological characters to serve as indicators of systematic relationships, along with high probability of morphological convergence, seemed good candidates for study at the molecular level. The method I used is known as the allozyme technique, or often simply as starch gel electrophoresis. This method relies on the detection of putative alleles at enzyme coding loci based on the differential migration of their products in an electric field. Happily, the method resolved the phylogeny of these garter snakes quite well and I have since used this same technique to study relationships among North American water snakes, genus Nerodia, the rat snakes of Texas, genus Elaphe and among the genera of North American natricine snakes.

More recently I have turned to newer methods which rely on direct examination of segments of specific genes within the DNA molecule. Generally, the method I prefer is to amplify a gene segment using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) followed by the determination of its nucleotide sequence. Currently, I am using DNA sequence in an attempt to determine relationships among the rat snakes, genus Elaphe, sensu lato, and among thamnophiine snake genera.

My interest in the application of molecular methods is not limited to snakes and I have either completed or have ongoing work with birds, fish, lizards, crocodiles, frogs, isopods and scorpions. In working with groups with which I am less familiar I prefer to collaborate with colleagues who are experts.

As well as working in the laboratory my studies often require work in the field and this brings me great joy, as does the instruction of students in laboratory techniques. They will become our future scientists and our legacy.

Lawson, R., C.P. Kofron, and H.C. Dessauer. 1989. Allozyme variation in a natural population of the Nile crocodile. Symposium on the Biology of the Crocodilia. Am. Zool. 29: 863-871.

Lawson, R. and C.S. Lieb. 1990. Variation and hybridization in Elaphe bairdi (Serpentes: Colubridae). Journal of Herpetology 24: 280-292.

Lawson, R., A.J. Meier, P.G. Frank, and P.E. Moler. 1991. An allozyme study of the Nerodia fasciata - Nerodia clarkii complex of water snakes (Serpentes: Colubridae). Copeia: 638-659.

de Quieroz, A. and R. Lawson. 1994. Phylogenetic relationships of the garter snakes based on DNA sequences and allozyme variation. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 53: 209-229.

King, R.B. and R. Lawson. 1995. Color pattern variation in Lake Erie water snakes. Evolution 49: 885-896.

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