Image Credit: Davian Ho, Maya Peters Kostman, and Philippa Steinberg for the Innovative Genomics Institute, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, Image Cropped
Tag Archives: ecology
The time has come for the Stats Corner to wrap up as Ecology for the Masses closes. I want to thank Sam Perrin for bringing me on board, carving out a place for statistics on the site, and supporting my writing for the past two years. He was always generous with his time helping me brainstorm topics when I was out of ideas and providing helpful feedback to make the posts more engaging and accessible. We all have Sam to thank for the fun pictures that kick off each post as well. 🙂Read more
Image credit: Movie poster advertisement for Tarantula (1955), Public Domain, Image Cropped
In the mid twentieth century, movies like ‘Tarantula’ and ‘Them!’ set the scene for what life would be like if giant bugs existed. Scenes filled with nightmares arisen from experiments gone wrong, children-stealing ants, great taglines like “Science’s Deadliest Accident”, and some unbelievably outdated special effects.
Luckily, giant bugs don’t exist… Anymore.Read more
Top-down response to spatial variation in productivity and bottom-up response to temporal variation in productivity in a long-term study of desert ants (2022) Gibb et al., Biology Letters, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2022.0314
Ecosystem productivity can tell us a lot about how an ecosystem functions. The more productive an ecosystem is, the more life it can support. But productivity doesn’t just affect the diversity or number of species within an ecosystem, it affects how those species interact, from the large carnivores you find at the upper levels, to the plants and bacteria down the ‘bottom’.
Within ecosystems, the strength of a top-down process (something influencing those upper levels) vs. a bottom-up process (something influencing the lower levels) depends on how much primary productivity there is. Primary production occurs when a species makes its own energy instead of eating something else, and when there is a lot of it going around, it often allows the carnivores at the upper trophic levels to suppress the population numbers of herbivores. That means that while a bottom-up process may end up affecting the herbivores, a top-down process (like the hunting of carnivores) might impact the entire ecosystem.
On the other side of the spectrum, when there is little primary productivity, there aren’t usually as many carnivores suppressing the herbivore populations. A bottom-up process will increase herbivore numbers, making these bottom-up processes more important in these low-productivity systems. This is known as the Exploitation Ecosystem Hypothesis (EEH).Read more
Invasive snails, parasite spillback, and potential parasite spillover drive parasitic diseases of Hippopotamus amphibius in artificial lakes of Zimbabwe (2021) Schols et al., BMC Biology, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-021-01093-2
Artificial lakes can be a huge plus for the regions where they are constructed. People come to hang out at them, they can serve as habitat for local or migrating species, and they can also improve water accessibility. In fact, the majority of the research that I did for my PhD took place in artificial, human-made lakes (see here and here). Yet, these artificial lakes can also wreak havoc by destroying local ecosystems and introducing invasive species. Furthermore, because humans build communities around these lakes there is a risk of increased transmission of parasites to livestock and humans alike.
One group of common invasive species in these artificial lakes are snails, which serve as intermediate hosts for many parasites (see Did You Know?). Introduced water plants (like hyacinth) often harbor invasive species like the snails, and dams built to make artificial lakes often block snail predators from accessing the lakes, which means that the snails increase in number due to the release from predation pressure. Today’s authors wanted to understand how invasive snails modified parasite transmission within an artificial lake.Read more
Hidden effects of habitat restoration on the persistence of pollination networks (2022) Gaiarsa & Bascompte, Ecology Letters, https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.14081
It’s no secret that the world is undergoing a biodiversity crisis. This comes not only from climate change and human land use, but also invasive species – non-native species that cause harm to native ecosystems. Specifically, there are seven times more invasive species now than there were 75 years ago. Because of how many there are, and just how fragile ecosystems have become, it’s important to know what effects that invasive species have.
Ecological restoration (see Did You Know?) is one effective solution that can be used to mitigate the biodiversity crisis. Reestablishing native species can often help with this restoration, as does removing invasive species, but it usually requires human intervention. By removing these invasive species, the idea is that the native species will be released from competition and benefit from better access to necessary resources.
Yet to monitor invasive species removal, you need long-term data on population persistence, which is very difficult (logistically and financially) to collect. Understanding how the removal of invasive species benefits restoration requires not only measuring how such removal benefits ecosystem function, but also how it can benefit population persistence in the long term. Today’s authors wanted to understand how the removal of an invasive species benefited local community resilience.Read more
Would you rather stab, or be on the receiving end of a stab? This may seem like a confronting question, but it’s the dilemma many flatworms face when a mating opportunity arises.
Option 1: You are a flatworm and have just been stabbed by a stubby penis. You now have puncture wounds that must heal, after which you must carry fertilized eggs which you need to lay and protect upwards of 24 hours. Oh, the energy demands!
Option 2: Flatworm victory! You have successfully stabbed your opponent with your stubby penis before they could stab you. Your sperm has now fertilized their eggs. With this win, you move on with life and wait for your next mating “opponent”.
Which option do you choose? If you still can’t choose, it’s a good thing you aren’t a simultaneous-hermaphroditic flatworm. These flatworms have both fully functional male and female reproductive capabilities that can be used interchangeably, unlike other hermaphroditic species who switch back and forth during different phases of life. One might say these individuals have the capability to “choose” what role they want to play, male or female. Although, those forced into the role of reproductive female may disagree…
It is believed that individuals fight to “remain male” (i.e., not be fertilized) because sperm is biologically cheaper to produce than eggs, and males can produce more offspring than females over a lifetime. This type of fight has been thought to be “pure evolutionary selfishness”.
It was only discovered recently, after Dr. Leslie Newman and Dr. Nicholas Michiels spent 20 hours continuously watching pairs of captured flatworms. They observed that when an individual encounters another, both assume a fighting stance, curling their bodies back to display their penises. Next, they began to fight, each attempting to stab the other, which could last from 20 to 60 minutes.
Different species fight with different strategies. For example, racing-line flatworms (Pseudocerotidae bifurcus) use their penis to repeatedly strike at one another until one succeeds, injecting sperm under the skin of the other. Once the sperm is injected, it moves through the body to find and fertilize the eggs. Persian carpet flatworms (P. bedfordi, pictured above) instead use their penis like a water gun, ejaculating anywhere on their opponent’s body. With a sperm cocktail that dissolves flesh, it burns its way through various tissues until it reaches and fertilizes the eggs.
Penis fencing is the term scientists use to describe this behavior to “remain male”. This mating behavior isn’t seen amongst all flatworm species, only certain species within the family Pseudocerotidae. In the 1990’s there were only two species of flatworm known for this behavior, however as of 2020, the number has grown to 16.
Evolution of Penis Fencing
Species of flatworms can use sexual reproduction (need both gametes; sperm and egg), asexual reproduction (does not require both gametes, obtain all DNA from parent), or both. Those that use both, do so depending on which strategy is favoured by the environmental conditions. For example, sexual reproduction is favored under harsher, more unpredictable conditions, since genetically variable offspring are often better able to adapt and survive these conditions. Asexual reproduction may be favored when individuals are scarce, however it tends to be avoided as there is on average a 50% loss of genetic diversity per generation, subsequently increasing the probability of inbreeding in future generations. If asexual reproduction does occur, it can occur through budding or transverse fission. Budding occurs when ‘buds’ (i.e., outgrowth) grow out of the flatworm’s body until they are large enough to break off as new individuals. Fission, on the other hand, involves an individual being cut in half, with each half becoming a new individual.
A species may employ different hermaphroditic strategies of cross-fertilization depending on their ecological niche. These include delivery of sperm to a sperm-receiving organ of the mating partner, or hypodermic insemination of sperm into the cellular tissue by a modified penis that enables individuals to pierce the body wall of their partner. It is believed that the willingness to invest as little resources as possible into their offspring is very strong in hermaphroditic species, leading to these extreme mating behaviors such as penis fencing.
Yet penis fencing does not always occur when individuals meet. Four possible scenarios have been observed when individuals encountered one another:
- Both partners were receptive to mating and penis fencing was observed,
- Both partners were receptive but no penis fencing was observed,
- Only one partner was receptive and no penis fencing was observed however insemination was successful, and
- Neither were receptive to mating.
If penis fencing occurs, it typically leads to successful sperm insemination for one or both individuals. Number 3 may be the result of other mating behaviors. For example, mating Starry flatworms (P. stellae) will curl around each other, swimming in circular motions in attempts to inseminate each other.
Outcomes of Penis Fencing
A more recent study in 2020 found that penis fencing results in three outcomes; 1) both individuals were inseminated, 2) one individual was inseminated, or 3) neither were inseminated. These researchers found penis fencing to be more of a duel or contest mating ritual, rather than an aggressive, violent behavior as was originally thought. This is because they found different scenarios where penis fencing occurred that resulted in neither individual being inseminated, or where no penis fencing occurred resulting in at least one individual being inseminated. Although we may think of penis fencing a little differently now, one thing that will forever remain constant are the words of David Attenborough, “its only solace is knowing it’s young will carry the genes of a master swordsman”.
Jennifer Merems is a writer and researcher focusing on behavioral and nutritional ecology. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can learn more about Jennifer by following her on Twitter at @atyourcervid.
A novel trophic cascade between cougars and feral donkeys shapes desert wetlands (2022) Lundgren et al., Journal of Animal Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.13766
Trophic cascades (see Did You Know?) are an important part of many ecological systems. However, most of the world’s large predator species were lost around 10,000 years ago (potentially due to human impacts), thus limiting the role that predators could play in driving trophic cascades. Though large predators were lost, many large herbivores are still around, which means it is difficult for a smaller predator to take down/consume these herbivores, much less have an effect large enough to drive a trophic cascade.
In the United States, large felines such as cougars (Puma concolor) are known to predate large equid species (such as feral horses or donkeys), but much of the ecological literature assumes/claims that cougars do no exert a strong enough pressure to consider them “significant” predators of these equid species. Specifically, some reports state that these species don’t have any natural predators, and other reports echo the claim. Today’s authors report on a novel trophic cascade between the cougar, feral donkeys (Equus africanus asinus), and wetland vegetation.Read more
Biotic interactions are more often important at species’ warm versus cool range edges (2021) Paquette & Hargreaves, Ecology Letters, https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.13864
In the natural world, most organisms are limited by the environment as to where they can live. While this can be as drastic as a whale being limited to the ocean and humans being limited to the land, there are also more subtle limitations. That is, black and grizzly bears live in temperate environments, but polar bears are inhabit the arctic where it is MUCH colder. Due to the limitations imposed by the environment, black and grizzly bears cannot live further north.
Historically, most studies have focused on abiotic variables (i.e., non-living), like temperature and precipitation, as there is a clear role for the climate in determining where and when a species can live. However, biotic variables (i.e., living) like predation or competition can also play a role in defining the limits of a species range, though this has proven more difficult to test than abiotic factors, as many tests of biotic variables produce species-specific results. Charles Darwin proposed a framework in 1859 that the importance of biotic interactions would vary predictably with latitude and elevation. That is, at cooler, high-altitude locations abiotic interactions would be more important, while biotic interactions would be more important at warmer, low-altitude locations. Although a number of studies have attempted to test the three predictions (see Did You Know? ) derived from this framework, the results are contradictory and come from data testing different predictions using different data. Today’s authors sought to test all three predictions at once in order to resolve these contradictory results.Read more
A role for the local environment in driving species-specific parasitism in a multi-host parasite system (2022) Hasik & Siepielski, Freshwater Biology, https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.13961
Image credit: Adam Hasik, image cropped
Parasites are an ever-present part of every ecological community on Earth, yet there are some species that harbor more parasites than others. In systems where parasitism is density-dependent, meaning parasitism increases with host density, the most common/numerous species will harbor the greatest amount of parasites. Yet there are also cases of species-specificity, whereby parasites specifically target a single host species. In other host-parasite systems, local-adaption plays a role in parasitism dynamics, whereby parasites are better at attacking their local hosts than they are attacking foreign hosts and/or hosts are better at defending themselves from local parasites than foreign parasites.
With all of these different factors affecting how host-parasite systems operate, it is important to identify when and if each one is operating within specific ecological communities. This is especially necessary when ecological communities are comprised of multiple host species and multiple parasite species, all of which can/do interact with one another.
To investigate the above factors, we first conducted a survey of parasitism in damselflies (Enallagma spp.) and their water mite parasites (Arrenurus spp.). From there, we then carried out to field experiments to understand why parasitism operates the way it does within this system.Read more