Karl Kjer



Kjer, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Nematology, specializes in phylogenetics, the study of how organisms are evolutionarily related to one another. Kjer completed his Ph.D. in entomology at the University of Minnesota. He was a professor at Rutgers University for 18 years before joining the faculty at UC Davis in 2015.

Research interests:

Phylogenetics, evolutionary biology, entomology, biodiversity, DNA barcoding, Trichoptera (caddisflies)

Brief overview:

In evolution, populations are altered over time through random drift or natural selection. They may split into separate, reproductively isolated lineages, or branches, following a pattern of descent with modification from a common ancestor. A phylogeny is an estimate of the lines of evolutionary descent among organisms. Individual genes have a history of descent with modification that may differ from the phylogeny, and we can trace these branching patterns, as well.

Phylogenetics, in the broadest sense, tells us who, what, when, where, and how organisms came to be. Phylogenetics is the closest thing we have to a time machine in providing a tool to reconstruct the evolutionary history and development among groups of organisms. The theory and methods developed for the basic science of phylogeny can be used for a wide variety of applications, such as recommendations for slowing the development of pesticide resistence, or predicting disease epidemics, or the development of effective vaccines.

My research can be subdivided into three main areas:

  • the development of sound phylogenetic methods
  • the deep phylogeny of insects
  • the phylogeny and biodiversity of Trichoptera, or caddisflies

Most people are unfamiliar with Trichoptera, (except maybe trout fly fisherman because trout love caddisflies). Yet,these moth-like insects with aquatic larvae are the seventh most diverse insect order, with twice as many species as birds. My lab collaborates with alpha taxonomists (who describe new species), and with freshwater ecologists who use caddisflies as precise indicators of water quality. Different species of caddisflies are differentially sensitive to water pollution, so governmental agencies use aquatic insects like caddisflies as bioindicators. Citizen scientists, too, can observe caddisflies to become more aware of the water quality in their neighborhoods.

Current projects:

  • Trichoptera barcode of life database, which currently has more than 58,000 individuals in the database, with sequences from more than 4,500 species representing every family in the order with one gene fragment


Updated January 2016

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