I am an evolutionary marine invertebrate biologist, and I use bioinformatics and high-throughput sequencing technologies (genomics and transcriptomics) to explore life-history evolution in terrestrial crabs.

I completed my B.S. in Biological Sciences (concentration in Ecology and Evolution) at Cornell University in 2013 with academic and research honors. While there, I studied climate science, marine biology, and coral reef biodiversity via several internships/fellowships at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Indonesian Biodiversity Research Center in Bali, Indonesia, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

After graduating, I worked for two years as a lab manager and research technician at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA, which is where I discovered my passion for understanding life-history evolution in terrestrial crabs. I began my PhD in Population Biology at UC Davis in 2015, and as a Fellow of both the NSF GRFP and the NSF EAPSI programs, I have traveled extensively across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to observe and collect genetic samples from several land crab species.

As a disabled Black woman in evolution and ecology, I am also passionate about increasing, supporting, and retaining diversity of all kinds in STEM, and during my PhD, I served as the first Graduate Student Advisor to the Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the College of Biological Sciences at UC Davis. I graduated as the first Black PhD from my degree program, and was also awarded the Merton Love Award for Best Dissertation in Ecology and Evolution for my dissertation work.

I am now a postdoc at Stanford University as a joint Stanford Science Fellow/NSF PRFB Fellow and hope to one day launch my own research lab studying major evolutionary transitions.

Honors & Awards

  • Finalist, HHMI Hanna H. Gray Fellowship, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2023)
  • Merton Love Award for Outstanding Dissertation in Ecology and Evolution, UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology (2022)
  • NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology Recipient, National Science Foundation (2021)
  • Stanford Science Fellowship Recipient, Stanford University (2021)
  • Center for Population Biology Research Award, UC Davis Center for Population Biology (2020)
  • Science and Society Writing Competition Winner, UC Davis Center for Population Biology (2020)
  • Daphne and Ted Pengelley Award in Evolutionary Biology, UC Davis Center for Population Biology (2019)
  • Center for Population Biology Collaborative Project Research Award, UC Davis Center for Population Biology (2018)
  • Center for Population Biology Research Award, UC Davis Center for Population Biology (2018)
  • Daphne and Ted Pengelley Award in Evolutionary Biology, UC Davis Center for Population Biology (2018)
  • Graduate Research Excellence Grant, Society for the Study of Evolution (2018)
  • NAIST International Student Workshop Fellow, Nara Institute for Science and Technology (NAIST), Japan (2018)
  • Daphne and Ted Pengelley Award in Evolutionary Biology, UC Davis Center for Population Biology (2017)
  • Grant-In-Aid-of-Research, Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society (2017)
  • Rosemary Grant Graduate Student Research Award, Society for the Study of Evolution (2017)
  • NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Fellowship Recipient, Singapore, National Science Foundation (2016)
  • NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Recipient, National Science Foundation (2015 - 2020)
  • Distinction in Research Award, Cornell University (2013)
  • Research Student Fellowship, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (2012 - 2013)
  • Biology Research Fellowship, Cornell University (2011 - 2013)

Stanford Advisors

All Publications

  • Convergent adaptation of true crabs (Decapoda: Brachyura) to a gradient of terrestrial environments. Systematic biology Wolfe, J. M., Ballou, L., Luque, J., Watson-Zink, V. M., Ahyong, S. T., Barido-Sottani, J., Chan, T. Y., Chu, K. H., Crandall, K. A., Daniels, S. R., Felder, D. L., Mancke, H., Martin, J. W., Ng, P. K., Ortega-Hernández, J., Palacios Theil, E., Pentcheff, N. D., Robles, R., Thoma, B. P., Tsang, L. M., Wetzer, R., Windsor, A. M., Bracken-Grissom, H. D. 2023


    For much of terrestrial biodiversity, the evolutionary pathways of adaptation from marine ancestors are poorly understood, and have usually been viewed as a binary trait. True crabs, the decapod crustacean infraorder Brachyura, comprise over 7,600 species representing a striking diversity of morphology and ecology, including repeated adaptation to non-marine habitats. Here, we reconstruct the evolutionary history of Brachyura using new and published sequences of 10 genes for 344 tips spanning 88 of 109 brachyuran families. Using 36 newly vetted fossil calibrations, we infer that brachyurans most likely diverged in the Triassic, with family-level splits in the late Cretaceous and early Paleogene. By contrast, the root age is underestimated with automated sampling of 328 fossil occurrences explicitly incorporated into the tree prior, suggesting such models are a poor fit under heterogeneous fossil preservation. We apply recently defined trait-by-environment associations to classify a gradient of transitions from marine to terrestrial lifestyles. We estimate that crabs left the marine environment at least seven and up to 17 times convergently, and returned to the sea from non-marine environments at least twice. Although the most highly terrestrial- and many freshwater-adapted crabs are concentrated in Thoracotremata, Bayesian threshold models of ancestral state reconstruction fail to identify shifts to higher terrestrial grades due to the degree of underlying change required. Lineages throughout our tree inhabit intertidal and marginal marine environments, corroborating the inference that the early stages of terrestrial adaptation have a lower threshold to evolve. Our framework and extensive new fossil and natural history datasets will enable future comparisons of non-marine adaptation at the morphological and molecular level. Crabs provide an important window into the early processes of adaptation to novel environments, and different degrees of evolutionary constraint that might help predict these pathways.

    View details for DOI 10.1093/sysbio/syad066

    View details for PubMedID 37941464

  • Terrestrialization in gastropods: lineages, ecological constraints and comparisons with other animals BIOLOGICAL JOURNAL OF THE LINNEAN SOCIETY Vermeij, G. J., Watson-Zink, V. M. 2022
  • Troubled giants: The updated conservation status of the coconut crab (Birgus latro) RAFFLES BULLETIN OF ZOOLOGY Cumberlidge, N., Caro, T., Watson-Zink, V. M., Naruse, T., Ng, P. L., Orchard, M., Rahayu, D. L., Wowor, D., Yeo, D. J., White, T. 2022; 70: 1-21
  • Making the grade: Physiological adaptations to terrestrial environments in decapod crabs ARTHROPOD STRUCTURE & DEVELOPMENT Watson-Zink, V. M. 2021; 64: 101089


    All extant macroscopic terrestrial diversity has evolved from the ancestors of a small group of successful terrestrial colonizers, but in a few lineages this transition has independently occurred multiple times in spite of the significant functional challenges it presents. Decapod crabs have transitioned from marine to terrestrial environments at least ten times, occupy diverse habitats, and display varying degrees of terrestriality. Previous attempts to categorize land crab diversity relied on single traits, did not explicitly distinguish between brachyuran and anomuran lineages, and did not separate lineages that colonized land via freshwater or marine environments. As a result, critical phylogenetic and ecological constraints were missing from these earlier classifications. In this paper, I reclassify terrestriality in the land crabs by designating four transition pathways that reflect deep phylogenetic relationships between the two decapod crab infraorders and the route-specific nature of this transition. I then describe the adaptive traits that evolved in response to six primary terrestrial selective challenges. I conclude by proposing six grades of terrestriality in this system that describe observable trait-by-environment associations, and propose studies that can test the hypothetical sequence of trait evolution and the nature of convergence in the land crabs using phylogenomic and transcriptomic tools.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.asd.2021.101089

    View details for Web of Science ID 000696924000003

    View details for PubMedID 34399185

  • A case study of the coconut crab Birgus latro on Zanzibar highlights global threats and conservation solutions ORYX Caro, T., Hamad, H., Rashid, R., Kloiber, U., Morgan, V. M., Nokelainen, O., Caro, B., Pretelli, I., Cumberlidge, N., Borgerhoff Mulder, M. 2021; 55 (4): 556-563
  • Colour polymorphism and protective coloration in coconut crabs ETHOLOGY ECOLOGY & EVOLUTION Caro, T., Cluff, E., Morgan, V. M. 2019; 31 (6): 514-525
  • Correlates of color polymorphism in coconut crabs Birgus latro ZOOLOGY Caro, T., Morgan, V. M. 2018; 129: 1-8


    Color polymorphisms are widespread in nature and can be maintained by several evolutionary processes. We used the coconut crab (Birgus latro) red/blue color polymorphism as a test case to explore the functional significance of intraspecific variation in crab coloration. Across our study sites on Pemba and Chumbe Islands, Tanzania, and Christmas Island, Australian Territory, red:blue morph ratios were 76.5%, 66.7% and 72.0% respectively, or approximately 3:1 in each case. To investigate whether coloration is sex or size dependent, signals strength or behavior, or is a physiological pleiotropic effect, we measured body weights, linear dimensions, pinch-force, behavioral dispositions and took crude environmental variables in the field. Except for a slight tendency for red crabs to be found in more open situations, we found no differences between color morphs for any of these variables. Other factors associated with color polymorphisms in other species, including frequency-dependent predation seems unlikely in such a large species with few natural predators, while niche separation in space seems improbable as morphs are typically found together. Assortative mating is plausible but mating is rapid, suggesting little choice is involved. Our findings suggest that neither morphological nor behavioral factors can explain color polymorphism in this species and that explanations must be found elsewhere.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.zool.2018.06.002

    View details for Web of Science ID 000446807300001

    View details for PubMedID 30170743

  • Stress physiology and weapon integrity of intertidal mantis shrimp under future ocean conditions SCIENTIFIC REPORTS deVries, M. S., Webb, S. J., Tu, J., Cory, E., Morgan, V., Sah, R. L., Deheyn, D. D., Taylor, J. A. 2016; 6: 38637


    Calcified marine organisms typically experience increased oxidative stress and changes in mineralization in response to ocean acidification and warming conditions. These effects could hinder the potency of animal weapons, such as the mantis shrimp's raptorial appendage. The mechanical properties of this calcified weapon enable extremely powerful punches to be delivered to prey and aggressors. We examined oxidative stress and exoskeleton structure, mineral content, and mechanical properties of the raptorial appendage and the carapace under long-term ocean acidification and warming conditions. The predatory appendage had significantly higher % Mg under ocean acidification conditions, while oxidative stress levels as well as the % Ca and mechanical properties of the appendage remained unchanged. Thus, mantis shrimp tolerate expanded ranges of pH and temperature without experiencing oxidative stress or functional changes to their weapons. Our findings suggest that these powerful predators will not be hindered under future ocean conditions.

    View details for DOI 10.1038/srep38637

    View details for Web of Science ID 000392079200001

    View details for PubMedID 27974830

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC5156921