Recipient of the 2012 Molecular Ecology Prize: Craig Moritz

A cartoon on an office door depicts two mountaineers descending into a valley. One mountaineer, trailing somewhat behind, has just asked his companion why they are descending into a valley and not scaling a nearby mountain instead. The leader's reply: ‘Because there's nothing there!’ The cartoon suggested that missing or unexpected phenomena are often worthy of investigation, just like observable ones.

Figure 1.

Craig Moritz in the Australian Wet Tropics rainforest with a prickly forest skink, Gnypetoscincus queeslandiae. Photo courtesy of R. Bell.

The office door featuring this cartoon was Craig Moritz's at the University of Queensland from 1988 to 2001, where he was professor and head of the School of Botany, Zoology and Entomology. The cartoon perfectly encapsulates Craig's style of inspiration and leadership—in particular, his desire to analyse data to understand what the data are saying about nature. Craig has also been a leader through his enthusiastic, but always informed, development and adoption of new methods. Underpinning this leadership is a desire to test theory and address questions of evolutionary concern and conservation importance. Importantly, this work is grounded in an insatiable curiosity about the natural world and in building a deep understanding of the environments and landscapes that comprise that world. And, of course, Craig nurtures the same attitude in his students.

Craig's diverse research career began with doctoral work at the Australian National University, Canberra, on evolution in parthenogenetic lizards. That led to postdoctoral work with Wes Brown at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, on what was then a novel approach to evolution—studying variation in mitochondrial DNA both to understand the dynamics of its replication and transmission (Moritz & Brown 1986) and to reconstruct population and lineage history (Moritz 1991a). This work identified the occurrence of parthenogenesis in the Australian gecko Heteronotia binoei (Moritz 1983), inferred the evolutionary history and dynamics of parthenogenesis (Moritz et al. 1989; Moritz 1991b; Moritz & Heideman 1993) and explored the consequences of asexuality for genomic integrity and organismal fitness (Moritz et al. 1991). Following his postdoctoral work, Craig returned to Australia in 1988 and began his work on the Australian Wet Tropics (AWT). Through a steady stream of papers spanning over 23 years, this work has explained the origins and maintenance of diversity in that biome and has thus become an exemplar of predictive historical biogeography and comparative phylogeography (Schneider et al. 1998; Hugall et al. 2002; Graham et al. 2006; Moritz et al. 2009; Moritz & Carnaval 2010). His AWT and H. binoei research are now recognized around the world as model systems. This is not because they had signs up saying, ‘Do Research Here!’ It is because Craig, as the scientist's scientist, had a hunch that these systems were ideal for rigorous scientific study of evolutionary processes in nature.

Craig also translates this work to broader environmental goals; his significant contributions to understanding the factors generating and maintaining biodiversity have helped outline a framework for conservation based on evolutionary principles. For example, based on his phylogeographic work in Australia, Craig was an early leading voice in arguing for an evolutionary approach to conservation (Moritz 1994a, b, 1995; Moritz & Faith 1998). He developed the application of genetic data to define what had been termed ‘evolutionary significant units’ (ESUs) and introduced the concept of ‘management units’ (MUs) (Moritz 2002). For example, Craig, along with Dr. Col Limpus and a series of students, used molecular analyses to investigate the genetic structure of Australasian green turtles and to contribute to regional management strategies (FitzSimmons et al. 1997). Craig et al. went further and argued that conservation should seek to protect evolutionary processes that are likely to lead to ESUs and MUs [i.e. suture zones (Rissler et al. 2006; Moritz et al. 2009) and biodiversity hotspots (Davis et al. 2008)].

Beyond his work in conservation, Craig's leadership in the scientific community extends through his numerous positions, most notably as Director, Centre for Conservation Biology, University of Queensland (1994–1998), Project Leader, Co-operative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology & Management (1993–1996), President of the Society for Study of Evolution and Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. When he assumed directorship of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at UC-Berkeley in 2001, he expanded the museum's influence in three creative and important ways. First, he recognized the directive of the museum's inaugural Director, Joseph Grinnell, to use MVZ collections as historical records. Craig saw that he could realize this potential by studying shifting distributions in a time of climate change, and thus, he initiated and led the Grinnell Resurvey Project. Over the last 10 years, this project resurveyed three major transects in California originally surveyed by Grinnell and his team in the early 20th century. Results reveal how a century of climate change has changed distributions, genetics and morphology of Californian birds and mammals (Moritz et al. 2008; Tingley et al. 2009; Eastman et al. 2012; Rubidge et al. 2012). This project continues by using high-throughput sequencing of historical DNA collected from museum specimens to investigate the genomic consequences of climate change in historical and modern populations (Rowe et al. 2011). It is a fine example of Craig's commitment to identifying new and important ways to use museum specimens. Second, Craig was instrumental in developing biodiversity informatics for museum science. In particular, he fostered the establishment of the multiinstitutional online databases of museum specimens and records Arctos ( and VertNet ( (Graham et al. 2004a; Elith et al. 2006; Guralnick et al. 2009). These databases strengthen museums' relevance by democratizing access to the rich reserves of information they store and have helped stimulate new arms of research [i.e. ecological niche modelling (Graham et al. 2004b, 2006)]. Third, Craig et al. at UC-Berkeley led that institution's initiative for Global Change Biology in 2011 ( This multidisciplinary project strives to understand the effects of global change biology and to translate the findings for policy makers. This project further expands what being a natural history museum today can mean.

While Director of MVZ, Craig continued his work with colleague Dr. Steven Williams studying historical processes to predict current patterns of diversity in the AWT (Hugall et al. 2002; Graham et al. 2006; Moritz et al. 2009; Hoskin et al. 2011; Bell et al. 2012). Further, with colleague Dr. Ana Carnaval, he tested whether the same framework could be applied to explain diversity in Brazil's Atlantic Forest (Moritz & Carnaval 2010). Using a combination of historical niche modelling and multispecies coalescent methods, this work predicted and confirmed a new centre of genetic endemism in the Atlantic Forest in an underprotected region of the rainforest (Carnaval & Moritz 2008; Carnaval et al. 2009). Craig's work has also established that phylogeographic lineages are an important component of Earth's biodiversity. Craig's et al.'s work in Australian and Brazilian rainforests, the Pacific Islands and California has uncovered vast amounts of cryptic, and sometimes surprising, diversity. His work has further confirmed that these lineages often deserve to be elevated to species status, whether because there is evidence for deep genetic breaks between lineages (Fujita et al. 2010), selection against hybrids between lineages (Phillips et al. 2004), evolution of reinforcement (Hoskin et al. 2005) or subtle but important divergence in morphological and behavioural traits (Hoskin et al. 2011). Throughout all this work, Craig and his research group have continued to lead both the application and development of new methods, including application of coalescent-based and Bayesian methods for population genetic and phylogeny inference (Estoup et al. 2001; Dolman & Moritz 2006; Hickerson et al. 2006; Rosenblum et al. 2007; Belfiore et al. 2008), using bioclimatic data to understand historical processes driving lineage evolution (Hugall et al. 2002; Graham et al. 2006) and expanding data sets from mitochondrial to multilocus (Slade et al. 1993) and now genomic scales (Rowe et al. 2011; Bi et al. 2012). As was also shown in the state-of-the-art text ‘Molecular Systematics’ that Craig coauthored with Dr. David Hillis in 1990 and updated in 1996 (Hillis et al. 1996), Craig is often among the first in a field to apply a new method to an important and interesting question, thus generating novel data sets and conclusions. This has provided a model to other researchers on the utility of these approaches.

In 2012, Craig returned home to Australia, beginning a new post at the Australian National University as Professor and Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, where he heads the new Centre for Biodiversity Analysis. In his current role, Craig begins a new research objective to explore cryptic diversity in Australia's Monsoonal Tropics. Recent work (Fujita et al. 2010; Pepper et al. 2011) has shown that northern Australia harbours unexplored and undocumented diversity, and Craig proposes to use a blend of field-based species discovery, modelling of paleo-climatic refugia, genetics, genomics and demographic inference to identify and explain this diversity. In short, he is a self-confessed ‘discovery junkie’.

Reading about Craig's productive research career and multitude of leadership roles, one might wonder whether he shirked his duties as an advisor in order to fit it all in. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the many demands on his time, Craig never fails to mentor and advocate for his laboratory group. As former and current students of his, we know that Craig's utmost concern is for those he mentors. He encourages them to take risks, think broadly and pursue balanced lives (it's always fun in the Moritz lab!). Both Craig's recent receipt of a Faculty Mentor Award from UC-Berkeley and the numerous, productive scientists trained in his group (just a few: Michael Cunningham, University of Pretoria; Gaynor Dolman, Western Australian Museum; Andrew Hugall, Museum Victoria; Shane Lavery, University of Auckland; Sandie Degnan, University of Queensland; E. Bree Rosenblum, UC-Berkeley; Conrad Hoskin, James Cook University; Juan Parra, University of Antioquia; Matthew Fujita, University of Texas, Arlington; Chris Schneider, Boston University; Stuart Baird, CIBIO; Catherine Graham, SUNY-Stony Brook; Leslie Rissler, University of Alabama; Mike Hickerson, CUNY-Manhattan; Ana Carnaval, CUNY-Manhattan; Corrie Moreau, The Field Museum; Kevin Rowe, Museum Victoria; Dan Rabosky, University of Michigan; Devi Stuart-Fox, University of Melbourne) attest to his excellence at training and supporting those around him. Of particular note is Craig's encouragement of early participation of undergraduates in the sciences, both through his active support of the undergraduate programme at Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and through the innumerable undergraduates who began their research careers with Craig (Phillips et al. 2004; Bell et al. 2012; Oza et al. 2012).

Craig Moritz is often heard remarking that he has the best job in the whole world. In the end, this is what truly makes Craig a superb scientist—his enthusiasm is infectious, and his passion is indefatigable. Indeed, his boundless intellectual energy (fuelled by generous cups of coffee!) graces all that he does, from pursuing important questions in evolution, to advocating for better approaches to conservation, to moving the field forward through new initiatives and approaches, to supporting his colleagues and students in their own endeavours.

In all these, Craig has been supported by his wife Fiona and children, Charles and Jessie, whether allowing his time to be shared with the broader academic ‘family’, having fun in rubbish tips, or catching lizards in the Outback.

Leo Joseph* and Sonal Singhal†

*Australian National Wildlife Collection, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Canberra, Australia, †Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley

October 25th, 2012