Tag Archives: dispersal

On Dispersal, Connectivity and the Will of the Fish

Image Credit: Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

Integrating dispersal along freshwater systems in species distribution models (2020) Perrin et. al., Diversity & Distributions, https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13112

The Crux

Trying to figure out where a species can comfortably live is one thing, but figuring out which habitats they can actually access is another. I like to think most marsupials would do quite well in South America or Africa, but the fact is that they’re not dispersing across the Atlantic or Pacific anytime soon. However a Species Distribution Model (a statistical model that can be used to predict the likelihood of a species being found somewhere) often requires a more nuanced approach than “big ocean separating these two habitats”.

To integrate a species’ ability to actually access an area into a Species Distributions Model (SDM), we often use the concept of connectivity. Often, this means simply measuring the distance between two populations. But sometimes a species ability to disperse might not reflect something as simple as how far it needs to go. A perfectly good habitat might be only 100 metres away, but cut off by a raging great cliff. Or a road.

In this study, we wanted to see whether we could relate connectivity parameters used in an SDM to the actual ability of the species to disperse.

What We Did

We used two separate study systems here. One consisted of roughly 300 lakes within Northern Norway housed within a single catchment, or watershed, whereby a single path between each lake could be traced. Here we had presence-absence records for two species, the northern pike (Esox lucius) and the European perch (Perca fluviatilis). Both are native to the region, but they are starting to expand into more lakes and have a more severe effect as the climate warms. We used an SDM to investigate which factors determined species presence, including connectivity variables like the length of the rivers between each lake and a downstream population, and the average slope of those rivers.

The second ecosystem was a series of lakes in Sweden which pike and perch had previously occupied, but had been removed from in the 60s and 70s through the use of rotenone, a chemical dumped in small lakes which wipes out fish populations. These were useful, as we knew that the lakes were otherwise suitable for the species given their presence beforehand. As such, here we used a much simpler model to focus on dispersal ability, simply comparing whether or not the species were able to access and then recolonise the lakes from which they had been removed. We compared successful recolonisation from the nearest downstream lake to the same connectivity parameters as in the larger model.

Did You Know: Island Biogeography & Lakes

They obviously don’t look it, but when it comes to biogeography, lakes are essentially a special type of island. Most of the rules of island biogeography apply to them (for fish anyway); larger lakes are more likely to have more species, lakes close to the ocean or other large lakes (the ‘mainland’) are more likely to have those species as well. The big difference between regular islands and lakes is that we can mark pathways between them much more easily. You’d think that would make it easy for us to stop fish spreading into new lakes as the climate warms, but the problem is as always people – people often spread fish from lake to lake, and the rules of island biogeography don’t apply in quite the same way to someone with a car.

What We Found

The slope of the river was a much more important factor in determining a species presence than the actual distance between populations. This makes sense, as a steep slope could make it difficult for a fish to swim up, or could indicate the presence of a waterfall. Furthermore, adding connectivity parameters to our SDM in our first study system did improve our models, but did it represent dispersal accurately?

For pike, the effect of slope was pretty consistent across the two study systems, indicating that the effects of connectivity in a large SDM can mirror a species dispersal ability. However for perch there was some inconsistency across the two study systems, indicating that perhaps there was some other aspect of the rivers between populations that had a larger effect on dispersal.

While European perch might be native to parts of Scandinavia, it is alien to others. If it’s able to freely disperse between lakes, it could be a serious problem as the climate warms (Image Credit: Christa Rohrbach, CC BY-SA 2.0)


This study suffers from the same “lab vs. field” pitfalls as any other experiment that compares a complex study system to a smaller, ‘simpler’ one. Here, time is a factor. Our first study system looks at populations that have had centuries, in some cases millenia, to establish, whereas the second one looks at short-term re-establishments. It’s possible that given enough time, pike or perch could have eventually recolonised some of those lakes.

So What?

Having an idea of the effect of how different slope measurements can affect the dispersal of species is a great help, as it lets us know which lakes are protected by natural dispersal barriers, and which are likely to be invaded by species moving from downstream. However the fact that for perch, slope parameters varied in their effects across the study systems is a stern reminder that we need to always be mindful of how connectivity parameters actually relate to dispersal ability.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is now completely done with this paper and never wants to look at it again. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

On Fish Dispersal and the Perpetual Evil of the Duck

Image Credit: Norbert Nagel, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Credit

Woe betide my fishy ancestors, for I am come here today to vent my grievances at a paper so dastardly it has cast a tepid patina of anxiety on a LOT of the structured squabbling my colleagues and I call ‘research’.

Actually, I shouldn’t vent too harshly on the sarcopterygiites, those ancient lobe-finned ancestors of ours and their close cousins the regular fish. Birds, as always, are the main culprit here. An abhorrent series of mutations that messed up a perfectly good reptile.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Herbivore

Image Credit: Jorg Hempel, CC BY-SA 2.0

Can plant traits predict seed dispersal probability via red deer guts, fur, and hooves? (2019) Petersen and Bruun, Ecology and Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.5512

The Crux

Large animals are key players in structuring both the physical structure and the species compositions of plant communities. They eat some plants, but not others, they trample vegetation, they deposit nutrients through feces. However, they can also affect plant communities by transporting seeds (a process called zoochory) – either by eating them and defecating later on or by acting as vehicles for seeds stuck in their fur or on their feet. As large plant eaters are found in most of the world, and several populations are actually increasing, a deeper insight into these processes could turn out to be of great importance.

Today’s authors (myself and former colleague Hans Henrik Bruun) looked at the transport of plant seeds by red deer in Denmark: whether the different kinds of seed dispersal are significantly different with regards to what species are transported, and if certain plant and seed traits can be used to predict whether a seed is more likely to be found on the outside or inside of a deer.

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Using eDNA to Monitor Fish Dispersal

Environmental DNA is a hot topic in biomonitoring. But what is it exactly, and how can it be used to monitor the dispersal of a reintroduced fish species? (Image credit: Gunnar Jacobs, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped).

Guest post by Christopher Hempel

Using environmental DNA to monitor the reintroduction success of the Rhine sculpin (Cottus rhenanus) in a restored stream (2019) Hempel et al., PeerJ, https://peerj.com/preprints/27574/

The Crux

The term “environmental DNA (eDNA)” is currently booming in molecular ecology. But what exactly is this technological marvel? Essentially, eDNA comprises all DNA released by organisms into their environment, and originates from mucus, scales, faeces, epidermal cells, saliva, urine, hair, feathers – basically anything an organism might get rid of during its life. The eDNA can be collected from the environment, extracted, and analyzed to detect species using molecular approaches. As this is a very sensitive and non-invasive approach, it is a very hot topic for biomonitoring.

eDNA can be collected from any animal (in theory), but aquatic organisms in particular have been shown to be good target individuals (as eDNA is easiest to handle in water samples). Consequently, there are many studies using eDNA to monitor the activity of fish, reaching from the presence of invasive species to the effects of aquaculture. Here, we applied eDNA analysis to monitor a reintroduced fish species, the Rhine sculpin. The sculpin’s poor swimming ability make it useful as a bioindicator of the passability of streams and rivers. We wanted to investigate the potential of using eDNA to monitor the dispersal of the species in a remediated stream on a fine spatial and temporal scale.

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Ecology of the GoT Dragons

Image Credit: Game of Thrones, 2019

Adam and Sam talk macroecology and that’s pretty much it. How small would these dragons be? It’s very anti-climactic. We’ll do a supplemental later. Also SPOILERS. Though as we were a week behind, there’s some stuff that is currently incorrect re: the current status of the GoT dragons. Spoilers.

04:02 – Everyone’s Favourite Dragons
13:15 – The Ecology of the Dragons
40:13 – Balerion the Big Boi vs. The US Military

And as usual, you can check out last week’s podcast on the physiology of these flappy flaps flaps below.

Simulating the Evolution of Life in South America

Image Credit: johnno49, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped

Modeling the ecology and evolution of biodiversity: Biogeographical cradles, museums, and graves (2018) Rangel et al., Science, 244, DOI: 10.1126/science.aar5452

The Crux

Understanding the processes which drive biodiversity worldwide is never more crucial than now, in a world where biodiversity is shrinking rapidly. Biogeography, the study of species distributions, has come a long way, but there are still a lot of problems that need solving, including improving our understanding of the interactions between factors like climate change, dispersal abilities, fragmentation and species competition, to name a few.

This paper attempted to analyse some of the effects of those factors in concert, by producing a simulation of the evolutionary process in the world’s most biologically diverse continent, South America.

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Are Animals Doing the Wrong Thing?

The great tit (Parus major) needs to gain more than 10 % of its body weight in pure fat every evening, in order to survive a cold winter night (Image Credit: Frank Vassen, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Short-term insurance versus long-term bet-hedging strategies as adaptations to variable environments (2019). Haaland, T.R. et al., Evolution, 73, 145-157.

The Crux

Why do animals behave the way they do? Behavioral ecology is a field of research trying to explain the ecological rationale of animal decision making. But quite often, it turns out the animals are doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Why don’t all animals make the same choice, when there clearly is a best option? Why do animals consistently do too little or too much of something?

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Restoring Biodiversity Through Species Interactions

When species like this toucanet are lost, the interactions that they are a part of are lost too. So how can we restore them? (Image Credit: Jairmoreirafotografia, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Estimating interaction credit for trophic rewilding in tropical forests (2018) Marjakangas, E.-L. et al., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biology, 373, https://dx.doi/10.1098/rstb.2017.0435

The Crux

We have reviewed more than enough papers on biodiversity loss to entitle us to skip the whole “losing species is bad” spiel (see here, here and here). But what we haven’t talked about is that when some species are lost, specific interactions that those species participate in disappear from an ecosystem. Those interactions range from the minute to the crucial. One such crucial example is that of seed dispersal, whereby specific plants rely on specific animals to disperse their seeds, thus maximising biodiversity in other parts of the forest and creating a positive feedback loop.

Naturally, conservationists will want to reintroduce animals to propagate some of these reactions. But as is always the case in conservation, maximising return is absolutely essential when you’re faced with limited resources and a lot of ground to cover. Today’s authors wanted to develop a system for maximising the effect of species reintroduction.

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The Effects of City Life On a Species’ Body

Species like the anole exist in natural and urban environments. So how does where they live affect their body shape? (Image Credit: RobinSings, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Linking locomotor performance to morphological shifts in urban lizards (2018) Winchell, K. et al., Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, 285, http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.0229

The Crux

We know that human construction leads to displacement of many species, regardless of the ecosystem. But just because we put up a city, doesn’t mean that all the species that lived there go disappear. Some stay and adapt to their new surroundings. Understanding how certain types of organism respond to new environments is important when considering our impact on a species.

Today’s paper looks at the response of lizards, in this case anoles, to living in the city. The authors wanted to find out, among other things, whether individuals of the selected species showed different locomotive abilities on natural and man-made surfaces based on whether or not they came from the city or the forest, and whether these corresponded to morphological differences.

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Shannon McCauley: The Rise of Community Ecology

"...there’s been huge growth in what we can do, but I think there’s been some loss in understanding the behavioural base of biology." (Image Credit: Shannon McCauley)

Image Credit: Shannon McCauley, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

Community ecology is one of the more recent ecological disciplines, and has enjoyed a rise in popularity in the last decade. Yet it’s often been criticised as a little obscure, and has had difficulties integrating with other branches of ecology like evolution and population dynamics.

With this in mind, I sat down with Doctor Shannon McCauley of the University of Toronto during her recent visit to the University of Arkansas. Shannon is a community ecologist at the University of Toronto-Mississauga who uses dragonflies and other aquatic insects to answer questions about dispersal, community connectivity, and the effects of climate change. We attempted to put a little more context behind community ecology, and highlighted its relevance in the coming years.

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