Image Credit: Francesco Veronesi, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped
Macroevolutionary convergence connects morphological form to ecological function in birds (2020) Pigot et al, Nature Ecology & Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-1070-4
There are an astounding amount of different forms that the animals on our planet take. Likewise, there are a multitude of diverse functions that animals serve in the environment, such as that of a herbivore, a predator, or scavenger. In some cases it’s a clear link between the form of a given animal and its function in the environment, like that of the beak of a hummingbird that allows it to feed on nectar and their role as a pollinator. But whether or not there is a reliable way to predict the function of an animal based off of its form is has been the subject of considerable controversy.
Deciding on how many morphological traits to use to predict ecological function is a difficult prospect. One could argue that it’s impossible to pick a finite number of traits, as there are infinite possible niches that organisms can fill so there’s no way that a set of traits could fill those infinite possible niches. Mapping animal form to function has major implications for quantifying and and conserving biodiversity, and the authors of today’s paper wanted to to determine just how many traits are needed to do that.
Image Credit: Internet Archive Book Image, Public Domain, Image Cropped
Non-scientists still often think of ecologists as field workers in cargo shorts, running around a grassland with a notebook and a tape measure. Whilst I’d be remiss to say this wasn’t a percentage of us, the last two decades has seen the rise of ecological modelling, which has resulted in a new breed of ecologist. One who is capable of working almost exclusively with data, producing species distribution maps and population fluctuation graphs without leaving the office.
At the forefront of this group is Bob O’Hara, who has long claimed he plans to retire the moment he figures out whether he’s a biologist or statistician. Bob currently works at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, spending his time with the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics and the Departments of Mathematical Sciences. I spoke to Bob about the history of ecological modelling, its integration into the wider field, and problems with modern ecological modelling.
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, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped)
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.