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Matthew S. Leslie, Ph.D.

B.S., Oklahoma State University; M.S., Ph.D., Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

Matthew S. Leslie is the Secretary G. Wayne Clough Postdoctoral Fellow (via the James Smithson Fellows Program) at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics (SCBI-CCG). Leslie conducts conservation-driven studies of marine mammals aimed at uncovering natural patterns and processes of ecology, population biology and evolution, in order to identify cryptic diversity, clarify taxonomy and inform targeted conservation actions for marine mammal species. Leslie is unique in his ability to combine field studies, laboratory work and investigations in natural history collections to answer such questions.

Leslie enjoys unraveling some of the more complex issues in cetacean (whales and dolphins) systematics and taxonomy. For his graduate work, he completed genome-scale work about pelagic dolphins killed in large numbers in the eastern tropical Pacific tuna fishery. Previous work had never found genetic differences between morphologically different subspecies. Leslie’s work using several thousand data points from around the genome found support for the subspecies. For his postdoctoral work, Leslie is tackling the systematics and taxonomy of balaenopteroid whales (rorquals)—the large gulf-feeding whales. Several cryptic taxa have been described within the last two decades, and there are likely more hiding in plain sight. Moreover, the taxonomy of medium-sized rorquals is messy. Using ultra-conserved elements, and in collaboration with Lilly Parker (George Mason University) and Jesus Maldonado (SCBI-CCG), Leslie hopes to recover a robust phylogeny and begin sorting out the taxonomy of this group.

In addition, Dr. Leslie is working with colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to develop and implement small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) for the study of cetacean health and systematics. He is an FAA certified sUAS pilot and recently served as Pilot-In-Command for a study of Chilean pygmy blue whales in western Patagonia. The objects were to collect aerial photogrammetry measurements and collected “blow” samples for microbiome analysis. Leslie is analyzing the photogrammetry data to test hypotheses of subspecies uniqueness for these Chilean blue whales.

Leslie's projects include:

  • Phylogenetics and taxonomy of balaenopteroid whales
  • Determining subspecific status of Chilean pygmy blue whales using unmanned aerial systems
  • Redescription of an extinct Miocene balaenopteroid whale
Leslie received his B.S. in zoology from Oklahoma State University, a M.S. in biological oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego (SIO) and a Ph.D. in marine biology also from SIO. Prior to graduate school, Leslie was the Manager of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He has conducted cetacean field expeditions in Madagascar, Cambodia, the Western Hawaiian Islands, the Bahamas, the Gulf of Mexico and Chile. Lesliehas served as an invited participant and rapporteur to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission and received more than $250,000 in research funding from the Sussman Foundation, UC-Mexus, the American Museum of Natural History, National Science Foundation IGERT, National Science Foundation GRF, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.
Leslie is a “scientist communicator” as well, and enjoys formal teaching and informal public science education.
Recent Publications: 

Leslie MS and Morin PA. 2016. Using genome-wide SNPs to detect structure in high-diversity and low-divergence populations of severely impacted eastern tropical Pacific spinner (Stenella longirostris) and pantropical spotted dolphins (S. attenuata). Frontiers in Marine Science 3:253. DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2016.00253

Leslie MS. 2014. The impact of phylogenetic nomenclature on the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act. Conservation Biology 29(1):69-77. DOI:10.1111/cobi.12375

Kershaw F, Leslie MS, Collins T, Mansur R, Rubaiyat M, Smith B, Minton G, Baldwin R, et al. 2013. Population differentiation of two forms of Bryde’s whales in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Journal of Heredity 104(6):755-764. DOI:10.1093/jhered/est057.