One of the timeless (get it?) questions in biology is why did we evolve to age? What benefit is there to getting older and deteriorating before we die? (Image Credit: medienluemmel )
Evolution favours aging in populations with assortative mating and in sexully dimorphic populations (2018) Lenart, P. et al., Scientific Reports, 8, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-34391-x
We as humans are familiar with aging as the slow deterioration of our bodies and minds over time, and we can see this in other animals as well (think of the old family dog with white around its muzzle). The interesting thing is that not every species ages in the way that we do, that is to say that they stay forever “young” until they die. In a biological sense that means that while these organisms can and do die, their risk of death remains the same throughout the course of their lives. This would be akin to your grandparents, in their old age, having the same risk of death as you during the prime of your life. Or, conversely, you being just as likely to die in your sleep as a senior citizen.
The authors of this study note that, while theories for the evolution of aging abound in the scientific literature, they are not broadly applicable and some of them even require the existence of aging for the evolution of aging to even happen. They wanted to find out in what situations aging individuals could outcompete non-aging individuals, and vice-versa.
When one looks at birds like this puffin, it can be hard to reconcile its cute appearance with its place in the animal kingdom. The thing is, this adorable puffin has something in common with a rattlesnake, in that it’s a reptile (Image credit: Ray Hennessy CC-0).
You read that correctly, birds are reptiles. Now, I can hear you saying “but we learned that they are a different group of organisms, and that reptiles are just those scaly animals that have cold blood?” While reptiles don’t have cold blood per se, some of them DO have feathers. And can fly. In this post I hope to convince you of the fact that the puffin pictured above, and all of its avian relatives, belong with the snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and turtles in the reptile group.
Rodents and primates are periodically cited as some of the more intelligent animals on the planet, but it turns out that the large brains that these mammals possess have evolved more than once in their history. (Image Credit: Arjan Haverkamp CC BY-SA 4.0
Encephalization and longevity evolved in acorrelated fashion in Euarchontoglires but not in other mammals (2018) DeCasien, Alex R., Evolution, DOI: doi:10.1111/evo.13633
Some of the most striking footage from documentaries like the recent “Blue Planet II” involve organisms that display remarkable intelligence (the octopus that uses shells to disguise itself and hide from its shark predators was a particular favorite of mine). As humans, we sometimes assume that we have the best brains on the planet and have somewhat of a monopoly on intelligence, so it’s always fascinating and maybe even surprising to see other animals using their own brains to solve problems. In mammals, brains that are larger than expected have evolved more than once, which is somewhat of a surprise given how costly a big brain is. For example, your brain needs 20% of the oxygen that your body uses, so one out of every five breaths is exclusively for your brain.
Larger brains are also correlated with longer lives, relative to the group that the organism in question belongs to. Historically, studies on brain size and longevity have been dominated by primate species, so the concern was that this long life/large brain trend may only be a primate trend, instead of generalizable to all mammals. The authors of this study wanted to analyze this trend across more mammal groups, in addition to studying the relationship between larger brains and longer lives.
Scientific papers nowadays are written more on computers than with ink and paper, but no matter how you write a paper it is important to distinguish who gets credit for what. (Image credit: Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0)
A huge component of science is the execution of successful experiments and then writing about those experiments. Consequently, a lot of weight is put on who did what, and what kind of credit people deserve for what they do. This can result in some arguments about how much so and so did for the project, and why they deserve authorship credit. In this article, I want to briefly cover some authorship issues and what kind of impact authorship can have on a scientist’s career.
Sea otters are one of many charismatic species found along the California coast, yet recovery doesn’t seem to be helping them. Is it something about their habitat that is preventing population growth? (Image Credit: “Mike” Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0)
Gaps in kelp cover may threaten the recovery of California sea otters (2018) Nicholson et al., Ecography, DOI:10.1111/ecog.03561
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fur trade was a massive industry in North America. As a result, many species were hunted and trapped to near extinction. The California sea otter (Enhydra lutris) was reduced in population to less than 50 total individuals. The enactment of the Internation Fur Treaty allowed the species (and others) to come back from the brink of extinction, and they now number over 3200 individuals and are spread across 525km of the California coast. Interestingly, although the population is recovering, it has not bounced back as quickly as other protected mammals living in the same habitat. The California sea lion, for example, has a maximum population growth rate more than twice that of the sea otter (11.7% compared to 5%).
Despite the remarkable recovery of the species, the sea otters occupy less than a quarter of their historic range and have not expanded along the coast in 20 years. The authors of this paper wanted to investigate what it is about the sea otters and their habitat that is slowing this population’s growth rate and spread along the coast.
Parasites like this leech can be found all over the world, and anyone growing up near freshwater knows to check for them. But many consider these animals “gross”, so how can we motivate the public and scientists to care about them? (Image credit: John Douglas, CC BY-SA 2.0)
As someone who works with parasites, I have to confess that I love them. They are beyond interesting, and I delight in telling people about them and what they do to their host organisms to survive. More often than not, people cringe or look like they would rather run away than hear more about such disgusting creatures. I know that as a disease ecologist I am very much in the minority when it comes to how I feel about parasites, but I think it’s important that we understand how vital these organisms are to the natural world, and the benefits they offer to scientists and their research.