One goal of evolutionary ecology is to understand the links between microevolution and macroevolution, meaning evolution in the short term (multiple generations) and how that scales up to the long term (millions of years). In macroevolution, a group of organisms is thought to be successful if it not only exists for a long period of time, but if it also boasts a large number of species. With those criteria in mind, crocodilians (alligators, crocodiles, gharials, and caimans) are one of the most successful lineages to have ever existed on the planet. Though they may not be the most diverse group of organisms with only 25 species, they have been around for about 100 million years. To put that into perspective, dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago, meaning that the crocodilians not only lived with dinosaurs, but they survived the mass extinction that the dinosaurs didn’t.
This longevity as a lineage raises some questions as to what it is about the crocodilians that made them so successful, when their cousins the dinosaurs died out. An interesting aspect of crocodilians is that there is very little variation among these organisms, as they are all generalist carnivores, live aquatic lives, exhibit mating vocalizations, their sex is determined by the temperature of their eggs (see Did You Know?), and they care for their eggs and young. Despite these similarities, there are some notable differences in the reproductive ecology and behavior of the different species, specifically how they build and care for their nests. Because of these differences, the authors of today’s study asked if variation in how crocodilians reproduce may have been the cause of their success.
We here at Ecology for the Masses recognize the harm of climate change and the danger that it poses to countless species the world over. Part of climate change involves extreme climate events such as floods, droughts, unusual cold spells, or cyclones, all of which can be devastating to natural systems. By and large these events are seen as negative, and rightfully so! But today’s paper offers another perspective on extreme climate events: their potential for driving evolution towards increased resilience.
Now, I’m not saying that these extreme climate events are good. I dislike them just as much as the next person with a shred of concern about the natural world. That being said, the authors raise some interesting points about the evidence that exists for these events being a positive force for evolution and adaptation. As such, I want to touch on a few of those points, address some issues with this ‘silver lining’, and talk about what it means going forward.
What Evidence Exists
Extreme climate events result in massive losses of organic life, local extinctions, and can drive range shifts. This is quite costly from not only an ecological point of view, but also a social and and an economic one. Due to these costs, a significant amount of effort and money has been dedicated to working on issues associated with these events. Interestingly enough, despite the negative connotations and costs associated with extreme climate events, there is emerging empirical evidence for a “benefit” in that they can cause non-random mortality (see Did You Know?), driving rapid evolution and adaptation.
Scientific theory has predicted that when extreme climate events occur in such a way that they select against weak individuals, but aren’t so extreme that “tougher” individuals cannot live, then these more tolerant and stronger individuals can persist in populations/areas undergoing extreme events. If these tougher individuals can pass on their genes, then a population can rapidly adapt to these extreme conditions. For example, a study showed that a severe cold snap selected for cold tolerance in green anoles (Anolis carolinensis), and similar work has shown that heatwaves selected for thermal tolerance in kelp. While plenty of the lizards/kelp didn’t have the proper traits to survive these extreme temperatures, some of them did. And because they passed on those genes to the next generation, the population is better-suited to survive future extreme temperatures.
Did You Know: Non-Random Mortality
Evolution is a fact of life, and the driving force behind the persistence of life on our planet. However, what you may not know is how evolution actually results in changes in a population/species over time. Individual organisms don’t evolve, species do. So how does that work? Well, it all has to do with how often certain individuals pass on their genes. “Survival of the fittest” refers to the biological concept of “fitness”, which is how good a given organism is at passing on its genes. So in order to be the most fit, you have to pass on the most genetic material, relative to other members of the population. This is where non-random mortality comes into play. Non-random mortality means that there is a pattern behind the death rates. Put into other words, the individuals that survived had something that the ones that died did not. This is how evolution works slowly over time, non-random mortality means that individuals with a given trait tend to die less often than those that don’t have that trait, which means that that trait gets passed on more often than others. Eventually, that trait will become the new normal for that population/species, and evolution has occurred.
What This Means
The potential for extreme events to select for resilience and drive rapid adaptation means that groups dedicated to conservation and preservation of species and ecosystems may be able to proactively anticipate future events. The authors highlight the difficulty inherent in studying non-model organisms for traits/genes that may promote persistence to future climate events, as it involves a LOT of background research to understand the mechanisms behind such persistence. However, to use the anoles from earlier as an example, there are better ways. If one was to go to an area that recently suffered a cold snap like those anoles did and collect the survivors, chances are that most of those survivors have the cold-tolerance trait. By selectively breeding/relocating those survivors conservation workers could prevent future die-offs due to cold snaps.
Problems With These Approaches
This all sounds great, right? No issue? Well, not quite. Just because a given trait may promote persistence to one stressor (the environment) does not mean that it promotes persistence to all others (like disease). Another issue with this silver-lining of adaptation and rapid evolution is the bottleneck effect: extreme events cause mass die-offs. Though the survivors may have a trait that allows them to persist in extreme events, the reduced population size of the survivors may result in such a marked decrease in genetic diversity that the population fails eventually anyway due to the issues associated with inbreeding.
Extreme climate events are an unfortunate reality, and they are only predicted to get worse and become more frequent. Today’s paper offers a pleasant silver lining to that very grim reality, as it highlights the potential for these events to drive evolution and selection to extreme conditions. It may not be as good as not having these events in the first place, but the authors bring up an important point by drawing attention to the evidence that exists for populations adapting to these extreme conditions, many of which seem to be driven by human-induced climate change. I’ve recently re-read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and I can’t help but think of a quote from the character Dr. Ian Malcolm’s as I was reading this paper: “The planet has survived everything, in its time. It will certainly survive us”.
Adam Hasik is an evolutionary ecologist interested in the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of host-parasite interactions. You can read more about his research and his work for Ecology for the Masses here, see his personal website here, or follow him on Twitter here.
QUICK NOTE: Harvestmen (aka Daddy Long Legs in North America) are NOT spiders! Despite the false myth that they can’t bite you due to short fangs, harvestmen aren’t even venomous. They can’t hurt you! There, now that I got that off my chest…
Sexual dimorphism is a common phenomenon in nature whereby male and female members of a given species differ from one another physically. Think of the large bull moose or elk with its antlers, peacocks and their colorful tails, or the larger horns of male stag beetles. Because of these differences, natural selection is able to act on both their behavioral and functional differences. That is to say, differences in performance and morphology mean that males and females of the same species may experience differential selection pressures. As a result, males and females could be expected to react differently to the same challenge, such as a predator.
Harvestmen (known in North America as Daddy-Long-Legs) are a group of arachnids that, although bearing a resemblance to and being commonly mistaken for spiders, are not actually spiders. They belong to a group called Opiliones. Some males of this group have thicker legs with pronounced spines, used in male-to-male competition and anti-predator defenses. In addition to using these spines against predators, these arachnids also engage in thanatosis (“playing dead”, see Did You Know?) and use chemical defenses. Due to these morphological differences, the authors hypothesized that males and females would differ in their response to predators.
Quantitative analysis of selected plastics in high-commercial-value Australian seafood by pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry (2020) Ribeiro et al., Environmental Science & Technology, https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.0c02337
Plastic is one of those things that we hear about all the time these days. More specifically, we hear about how there is an absolute ton of it in the environment thanks to human negligence and the lack of concern that a large amount of people have for where their plastic goes when they are finished with it. Plastic isn’t like paper or metal, it takes a long, LONG time for it to break down. Plastic bags take anywhere from 10-20 years, but the normal time it takes for most plastic waste to decompose is about 1000 years. To put that into perspective, Leif Erikson led an expedition from Greenland to the coast of what is now North America in the year 1002. If his crew had some plastic with them and left it in the places they visited (typical tourists) there’s a good chance that it would STILL be there today.
I hope I’ve convinced you why plastic is bad, but another danger that plastics pose are microplastics, small bits of plastic that have come from a larger piece, all of which are less than 5mm in size. Our environment is full of them, and the ocean in particular has been saturated with microplastics. In 2014 a research expedition sailed from Bermuda to Iceland (a trip of 2500 miles/4023 km) and found microplastics in every single sample they took. And that was just plastic in the environmental samples they took, the real threat to marine life comes from what happens to all of that microplastic.
Exposure to potentially cannibalistic conspecifics induces an increased immune response (2020) Murray et al., Ecological Entomology, https://doi.org/10.1111/een.12806
Plasticity is a powerful force in nature that allows organisms to change the way they look, the way they act, and even their own physiological processes. Prey species commonly exhibit plastic responses when they are exposed to predators, and recent studies have shown that these predator-induced effects can affect the immune function of the prey species. Because of this, predators have the potential to modify disease dynamics, either increasing disease/parasite infection by reducing the prey’s immune function, or decreasing disease by increasing immune function.
Interestingly, predators are not the only organisms that consume prey species. Some prey species eat both members of their own trophic level (an intraguild predator, see Did You Know) and members of their own species (a cannibal). Because they act like a predator (by eating a prey organism), there’s a possibility that these cannibalistic individuals may have the same effect on their potential victims. Today’s authors used larval dragonflies to investigate that exact question.
Male-Male Competition Causes Parasite-Mediated Sexual Selection for Local Adaptation (2020) Gómez-Llano et al., The American Naturalist, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.cjsxksn35
The natural world changes constantly: temperatures fluctuate, predators and parasites enter into the ecosystem, and the landscape itself could change (looking at you, Yellowstone). These changes mean that organisms are under a constant pressure to adapt to local conditions. Due to this pressure, one of the biggest questions for conservation biology is if species are able to adapt fast enough to keep up with environmental changes. Sexual selection is thought to promote rapid adaptation to such environmental changes, but most of the evidence comes from laboratory studies.
Our study looked at adaptation to one of nature’s ubiquitous pressures: parasitism. We were interested in the strength of selection by parasites and if there was subsequent adaptation by the host in a wild population.
Scientists face many challenges during their professional lives, but one prevalent problem that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves is that of the LGBTQIA+ (hereafter “queer”) community and the lack of inclusiveness in science. In honor of Pride Month, I wanted to take the time to highlight some of the challenges facing queer scientists and what we can do as a society to better ourselves.
Ever since COVID-19 hit, things have changed for people the world over. Many governments enforced lockdowns on their citizens, certain products are harder to get than before (looking at you toilet paper hoarders), and there has been an enormous and terrible loss of life. A wet market in China is suspected to be the source of the outbreak, but one thing to consider as we move forward is that the risk of another outbreak from other animal markets remains high.
We are all familiar with predator-prey relationships in nature, those in which one organism (a predator) kills and consumes another (the prey). Besides these direct effects on prey via consumption, predators can also impose indirect effects on their prey. An indirect effect is one in which the predator changes some aspect of the prey, such as their behavior or the way that they look, but these changes are brought about just by the predator being around. These predator-mediated effects are known to affect the relationships between prey organisms themselves, such as how prey organisms compete with one another, whether its for food, mates, or other resources.
Predators are known to affect how active their prey are, and this selection on activity results in a trade-off between how much prey can grow and their risk of predation. Being more active can allow you to find and eat more food, but that also means that a potential predator is more likely to see you. Today’s paper used larval damselflies and their fish predators to study how selection of fish on their damselfly prey based on the damselfly activity rates affected competition between the damselflies.
Many organisms in nature produce powerful (and sometimes deadly) toxic substances, often taken as evidence that prey evolved chemical defenses against predators. Interestingly, these chemical defenses are deadly not only to predators, but also to parasites. This complementary defense, in addition to the ubiquity of parasites themselves, indicate that parasites may have had a hand in the evolution of host toxicity.
One particularly potent toxin found in the animal kingdom is tetrodotoxin (TTX). It can cause paralysis, difficulty with breathing, and even death in some cases. Newts in the genus Taricha are notorious for having high concentrations of TTX in their skin and eggs, and this has long been thought to have evolved as a defense against predators. In particular, Taricha newts and garter snakes (Thamnopholisspp.) are a classic example of arms-race dynamics (see Did You Know). Despite this relationship, newt toxicity and snake resistance to the toxin don’t always match up perfectly in nature, suggesting that other factors may influence newt toxicitiy. The goal of today’s study was to study parasitic infection and compare it to variation in toxicity among two newt species, the rough-skinned newt (T.granulosa) and the California newt (T. torosa).