Tag Archives: evolution

Simulating the Evolution of Life in South America

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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Demonstrating Adaptive Evolution in Parasites

Host defense triggers rapid adaptive radiation in experimentally evolving parasites (2019) Bush et al., Evolution Letters, p. 1-9

The Crux

Adaptive radiation is a fascinating ecological concept, one with which anyone who knows the tale of Darwin’s finches will be familiar with. The basic premise is that an organism may evolve different forms (and ultimately become different species) in response to pressures exerted upon them.

But whilst this may have been observed in many vertebrates, it’s often overlooked in parasites, whereby host defenses can prompt divergence in parasite morphology. Today’s paper wanted to test the two basic concepts of evolution. 1) Can host defenses prompt physical changes in parasites? 2) Are these changes heritable?

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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: Ian Frank, CC BY 2.0)

Guest post by Thomas Haaland

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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The Ecology of a Mermaid

Adam regales us with one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever heard, and in case you were wondering, yes we do talk about how mermaids have sex. Jesus. Also there’s some cool ecology. Like how did mermaids evolve? Was it from a mutated baby tossed overboard? Probably not.

05:19 – Mermaids in Cinema
16:35 – Ecology of the Mermaids
33:25 – Mermaid Copulation (you were warned)
38:07 – The Mermaids vs. Jaws

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Blending In

In nature, it often pays to blend in to your background, especially if you’re a prey species like the deer mice used in this study. (Image Credit: David Cappaert, CC BY 2.0)

Linking a mutation to survival in wild mice (2018) Barret et al. Science, 363, p. 499-504.

The Crux

A big part of ecological studies involves investigating how certain traits or behaviors work (adapted) or don’t work (maladapted) in a specific environment, while scientists who study genetics may investigate specific parts of the DNA that are under selection for specific values of a given trait. Surprisingly, not many studies investigate these two aspects of natural selection simultaneously, instead they will attribute selection to a specific trait value without knowing the genetic mechanisms behind it.

The authors of this study used a well-studied model system of deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) to link these two aspects of ecology together, tying a mutation in a gene that codes for coat color into selection in the wild. The study took place in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, a relatively young region (in geological terms) where these mice are expected to have recently adapted to the environment due to strong selection for traits that promote their survival.

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The Root of Disease

Fields full of herbaceous plants such as these can be incredibly diverse and complicated ecosystems, and the multitudes of species that inhabit them can influence the magnitude of disease that the organisms that inhabit it may encounter (Image Credit: LudwigSebastianMicheler , CC BY-SA 4.0)

Past is prologue: host community assembly and the risk of infectious disease over time (2018) Halliday, F.W. et al., Ecology Letters, 22, https://dx.doi/10.1111/ele.13176

The Crux

Everything in ecology is based around the environment that a focal organism inhabits, including the interactions it has with other organisms and the non-living aspects of the habitat itself (temperature, water pH, etc.). That being said, it’s no surprise that disease dynamics are likely to depend on the environment that a host inhabits, and that the environment itself is a product of what came before. That is to say, the group of organisms that originally populate a given ecosystem can have an effect on how that ecosystem will look in the future (lakes with freshwater mussels will have clearer water than those without).

The scientific literature is full of experiments, observations, and hypotheses about which environmental conditions lead to fluctuations in disease dynamics. As such, it is difficult to come to a consensus with a “one-size-fits-all” rule for disease dynamics and community structure. The authors of today’s study used a long-term experiment to determine what exactly moderates disease over time.  Read more

Getting Older is Favored in Choosy Species

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

The Crux

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.

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