Campbell Hall 269
(205) 934-4006

Research and Teaching Interests: Ecology and Systematics

Robert Thacker. Office Hours: By appointment

  • BS, Duke University, Zoology
  • PhD, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Biology

After obtaining his PhD at the University of Michigan, Dr. Thacker conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Guam’s Marine Laboratory and the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory. He is currently an editor of the journal Invertebrate Biology, and serves on the editorial boards of the journal Frontiers in Microbiology. In 2008, Dr. Thacker received the inaugural Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentorship from the UAB Graduate School.

CV:Download pdf

Research in Dr. Thacker’s laboratory focuses on taxonomy, systematics, and the evolution of ecological interactions. Recent projects have used sponges and their symbiotic microbial communities as model systems to study coevolution among hosts and symbionts, the evolution of community structure, and the evolution of mutualistic interactions. Microbial symbionts can form half of the biomass of many marine sponges, while photosynthetic symbionts can supply up to 80% of a sponge's energetic needs. Because symbiotic cyanobacteria are closely related to free-living species, Dr. Thacker also investigates the ecology and evolution of marine and freshwater cyanobacteria. Applications of this research include collaborations with Conservation International to survey and protect the coral reef communities of Saba Bank, Netherlands Antilles, and collaborations with the Birmingham Water Works Board to examine the microbial biodiversity of a novel drinking water filtration system.

Taxonomy and systematics build the foundation for studying relationships among organisms and provide the phylogenetic context required by comparative studies and conservation biology. Despite recent revisions of the morphological classification of sponges, the taxonomy of many sponge orders remains problematic. The Porifera Tree of Life project is constructing a definitive phylogeny of sponges, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Assembling the Tree of Life program. Dr. Thacker’s research group integrates morphological and molecular approaches to systematics across the immense biodiversity represented by the four classes of sponges.

Two new projects build on the Porifera Tree of Life project by developing bioinformatic tools that can be applied to all taxonomic groups; these collaborative projects include investigators and students at multiple universities and software development companies. Arbor: Comparative Analysis Workflows for the Tree of Life is a novel software package for comparative evolutionary analyses. This software is designed to place tree-thinking tools into the hands of scientists across multiple disciplines, enabling rapid advances in integrative and comparative biology at multiple phylogenetic, spatial, and temporal scales. Next-Generation Phenomics for the Tree of Life combines text mining, image analysis, and machine learning software to automate phenotypic character discovery and scoring from publications and images.
  • Limnology
  • Molecular Ecology and Phylogenetics
  • Ecology
Current Students:
  • Kenan Matterson
  • Zach Nolen

Download a list of past graduate students.
  • Olson JB, Thacker RW, Gochfeld DJ, "Molecular community profiling reveals impacts of time, space, and disease status on the bacterial community associated with the Caribbean sponge Aplysina cauliformis," FEMS Microbiology Ecology 87 (No. 1, 2014): 268-79. doi: 10.1111/1574-6941.12222.
  • Easson CG, Slattery M, Momm HG, Olson JB, Thacker RW, Gochfeld DJ, "Exploring individual- to population-level impacts of disease on coral reef sponges: using spatial analysis to assess the fate, dynamics, and transmission of Aplysina red band syndrome (ARBS)," PLoS ONE 8 (No. 11, 2013): e79976. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079976.
  • Thacker RW, Hill AL, Hill MS, Redmond NE, Collins AG, Morrow CC, Spicer L, Carmack CA, Zappe ME, Pohlmann D, Hall C, Diaz MC, Bangalore PV, "Nearly complete 28S rRNA gene sequences confirm new hypotheses of sponge evolution," Integrative and Comparative Biology 53 (No. 3, 2013): 373-87. doi: 10.1093/icb/ict071.
  • Diaz MC, Thacker RW, Redmond NE, Matterson KO, Collins AG, "Phylogenetic novelties and geographic anomalies among tropical Verongida," Integrative and Comparative Biology 53 (No. 3, 2013): 482-94. doi:10.1093/icb/ict033.
  • Alvizu A, Diaz MC, Bastidas C, Rützler K, Thacker RW, Marquez LM, "A skeleton-less sponge of Caribbean mangroves: invasive or undescribed?" Invertebrate Biology 132 (No. 2, 2013): 81-94. doi:10.1111/ivb.12015.
  • Huang JP, Swain AK, Thacker RW, Ravindra R, Andersen DT, Bej AK, "Bacterial diversity of the rock-water interface in an East Antarctic freshwater ecosystem, Lake Tawani," Aquatic Biosystems 9 (2013):4. doi:10.1186/2046-9063-9-4.
  • Freeman CJ, Thacker RW, Baker DM, Fogel ML, "Quality or quantity: is nutrient transfer driven more by symbiont identity and productivity than by symbiont abundance?" The International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal 7 (No. 6, 2013): 1116-25. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2013.7.
  • Shirey TB, Thacker RW, Olson JB, "Composition and stability of bacterial communities associated with granular activated carbon and anthracite filters in a pilot scale municipal drinking water treatment facility," Journal of Water and Health 10 (No. 2, 2012): 244-55. doi:10.2166/wh.2012.092.
  • Thacker RW, Freeman CJ, "Sponge-microbe symbioses: Recent advances and new directions," Advances in Marine Biology 62 (2012): 57-111.