High parasite diversity accelerates host adaptation and diversification (2018) Betts et al., Science. https://doi:10.1126/science.aam9974
Image Credit: Dr. Graham Beards, CC BY-SA 3.0
Host-parasite relationships are often thought of or depicted in a pairwise structure. That is, one host is attacked by one parasite, without an acknowledgement or consideration of how complex the relationship can be. For example, hosts are often attacked by more than one type of parasite, and the parasites themselves have to compete with one another for resources from the host. Because parasites are costly for a host, the hosts benefit from evolving resistance to the parasites. It follows that the more parasites a host is attacked by, the higher the benefit of evolving resistance, so we’d expect to see more resistance in hosts that are attacked more often. This should then result in differential evolutionary rates among hosts, which would then result in greater evolutionary divergence (see Did You Know?)
To test this idea, the authors of today’s study used a bacterium (Pseudomonas aeruginosa) and five lytic viral parasites (hereafter bacteriophages). These bacteriophages reproduce within host cells until they eventually cause the host to burst, killing the host (think of the chestburster in Alien, but a LOT of them). Because their reproduction results in the death of the host, lytic parasites impose a very strong selection pressure on hosts, making this a perfect host-parasite system to test the above prediction.
The cost of travel: how dispersal ability limits local adaptation in host–parasite interactions (2020) Johnson et al., Journal of Evolutionary Biology. https://doi:10.1111/jeb.13754
Image Credit: Francis Eartherington, CC BY-NC 2.0, Image Cropped
There are countless parasites in nature, and many of them tend to have relatively short life-cycles. For example, ticks live for about two years, while may of their hosts (us included) live for much longer. Because there is such a disparity in lifespan, parasites are predicted to have a greater evolutionary potential than their hosts. In other words, parasites should evolve faster than their hosts, which theoretically means that parasites should be more fit on local hosts than they would be on non-local hosts, as they would have had more time to adapt (i.e., local adaption, see Did You Know?).
Despite these predictions, the evidence from experimental studies of parasite local adaptation is mixed at best. Some studies show the adaptation to local hosts we’d expect, but some studies don’t. One reason for the lack of consistent evidence is that parasite dispersal between habitats can limit the ability of parasites to adapt. To help explain that I’ll use a comparison to cooking. If you are cooking a dish and you want to make it spicier you add in more spice. But imagine that when you add in that spice, you are also adding a lot of cream. The dish could be spicy, because you are adding spice, but the cream is diluting the spice and masking any potential heat. That is what parasite dispersal does to local adaptation: parasites within a given habitat (the dish) may have the ability to adapt to their hosts (become spicier), but because parasites from other habitats (the cream) are coming into their habitat and diluting those adaptations it masks any overall adaptation to the host (never gets spicy). Today’s authors therefore wanted to test how parasite dispersal affected local adaptation to hosts.
Infection of filamentous phytoplankton by fungal parasites enhances herbivory in pelagic food webs (2020) Frenken et al., Limnology and Oceanography. https://doi.org/10.1002/lno.11474
Image Credit: MarekMiś, CC BY 4.0, Image Cropped
Pelagic ecosystems (see Did You Know) make up more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and the base of the food web is composed of primary producers like phytoplankton. Primary producers produce their own energy and provide an important service to the rest of the food web (and planet!). Not only do they provide a resource for the upper levels of the food web, but they also contribute to the global climate by making carbon available to other organisms. Because of these large-scale ramifications for any changes in phytoplankton primary production, many studies have investigated how things like nutrients, light, and temperature are able to affect phytoplankton.
A key aspect of certain phytoplankton is that they have morphological characteristics that make them more resistant to consumption by grazers further up the food web, like zooplankton. However, chytrid parasites (the same fungus that is ravaging amphibian populations the world over) are able to get around these defenses and reconnect phytoplankton to their zooplankton consumers. Chytrid infects phytoplankton, it then releases a free-living infectious stage, the zoospore, which is eaten by zooplankton. This indirect connection between inedible phytoplankton (like cyanobacteria) and zooplankton is called the mycoloop, and it can provide zooplankton with up to 40% of their food. Interestingly, studies have shown that zooplankton populations do better when their food, the inedible cyanobacteria, is infected by chytrid. Today’s study investigated how exactly chytrid is able to reduce the cyanobacteria defenses and provide zooplankton with more food.
Evolution and maintenance of microbe-mediated protection under occasional pathogen infection (2020) Kloock et al., Ecology and Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6555
Image Credit: Zeynep F. Altun, CC BY-SA 2.5, Image Cropped
Microbes are everywhere in nature, and I don’t just mean out in the wild. They live inside of every plant and animal, including humans. These microbes can be harmful, beneficial, or do nothing to their hosts. When they help us, microbes take part in what’s called “defensive mutualism”, which is where they help their hosts fight off parasites. Benefiting from this mutualistic relationship depends on whether or not there are parasites around to defend against, as microbial defense mechanisms can harm not only the parasite but also the host itself.
For this symbiotic relationship to continue and not be selected against over time, the benefits of hosting the microbe must outweigh the costs. This is all well and good when there are always a lot of parasites to defend against, but that is not always the case. Today’s authors wanted to test how changes in parasite pressure over time affected the relationship between a defensive microbe and its host.
Guest post by Miguel Gómez-Llano (Image Credit: Sharp Photography, CC BY-SA, Image Cropped)
Male-Male Competition Causes Parasite-Mediated Sexual Selection for Local Adaptation (2020) Gómez-Llano et al., The American Naturalist, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.cjsxksn35
The natural world changes constantly: temperatures fluctuate, predators and parasites enter into the ecosystem, and the landscape itself could change (looking at you, Yellowstone). These changes mean that organisms are under a constant pressure to adapt to local conditions. Due to this pressure, one of the biggest questions for conservation biology is if species are able to adapt fast enough to keep up with environmental changes. Sexual selection is thought to promote rapid adaptation to such environmental changes, but most of the evidence comes from laboratory studies.
Our study looked at adaptation to one of nature’s ubiquitous pressures: parasitism. We were interested in the strength of selection by parasites and if there was subsequent adaptation by the host in a wild population.
Invasive freshwater fish (Leuciscus leuciscus) acts as a sink for a parasite of native brown trout Salmo trutta (2020) Tierney et al. Biological Invasions. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-020-02253-1
From house cats to cane toads, invasive species are one of the biggest threats worldwide to native plants and wildlife, second only to habitat destruction. There are a few different definitions of an invasive species, but two consistent tenets are a) that they are a living organism spreading and forming new populations outside of their native range and b) causing some kind of damage to the native ecosystem, economy or human health. As humans move around the globe with increasing ease (these last two months aside), the spreading of invasive species is increasingly common in our globalised world.
The spread of invasive species creates new ecological interactions between native and invasive species that can impact how our native ecosystems function, including disease dynamics. One key set of interactions that can be completely changed by the introduction of the invader are that of parasites and their hosts. If development and transmission of native parasites is different in invasive hosts compared to their usual native hosts, the parasite dynamics of the whole system can be altered.
Image Credit: Andreas Kay, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Image Cropped
Specifc parasites indirectly influence niche occupation of non‑hosts community members (2018) Fernandes Cardoso et al., Oecologia, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-018-4163-x
One of the oldest questions in community ecology is why do some species seem to co-occur with one another, while others don’t? Two hypotheses have been put forward to explain why this happens: environmental filtering and niche partitioning. Environmental filtering is when some abiotic feature of a given environment – such as the temperature or oxygen levels – prohibits some species from ever living in the same location as another. A very broad (and overly simplistic) example of this is that you would never see a shark living in the same habitat as a lion, because the shark needs to live in the ocean and the terrestrial Savannah of Africa where lions are found “filter” the sharks out. Niche partitioning, on the other hand, involves species adapting to specialize on a given part of the environment, thus lessening competition for a niche by dividing it up. You can see this with some of Darwin’s Finches, which adapted differently-sized beaks to feed on differently-sized seeds. They all still eat seeds, but they are not eating the same seeds.
Interactions with other organisms, either direct or indirect, can also influence which species co-occur. If one species can out-compete another, they likely won’t be able to co-occur because the better competitor will take most of the resources, forcing the other out. This can all change, however, if a third organism affects the competitive ability of the superior competitor, allowing the inferior competitor to persist despite its lesser ability.
Today’s authors used two spider species to study community assembly and how it may be affected by a fungal parasite. Chrysso intervales (hereafter inland spiders) builds webs further away from rivers, while Helvibis longicauda builds webs close to the river (hereafter river spiders). Interestingly, only the river spiders are infected with the fungal parasite, thus they investigated how interactions between the two spiders may be mediated by this fungal parasite. Read more
Image Credit: Pete, CC BY-NC 2.0
Increased reproductive success through parasitoid release at a range margin: Implications for range shifts induced by climate change (2020) MacKay, Gross, & Ryder, Journal of Biogeography, https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13795
Predicting the response of organisms to climate change is a challenge for ecologists and wildlife managers alike. Fortunately, some responses are common enough that it is still possible to make fairly accurate predictions about them without too much information. One common response is that of the range shift, whereby a population of organisms facing some alteration (eg. climate change) in their current habitat, making it unfavorable, begin to move to another location. This allows them to track favorable environmental conditions and possibly mitigate any negative effects of climate change.
Sounds easy, right? Just pack it all up and move when things get hard? Well, for some organisms it may be that simple (looking at you, birds), but for others (like trees) it is significantly harder to do so. Trees (and other plants) are limited in that they depend on other organisms or things like wind to help disperse their seeds. Making things even more difficult are plant species that depend on specific pollinators, and in order for a successful range shift to happen trees AND their pollinators have to make the move. Today’s authors wanted to study how relationships between trees and their pollinators changed at the leading edge of a range shift, allowing them to understand how and why trees succeed during a range shift.
Image Credit: The Witcher, 2020
Science and movies often don’t go well together*. It’s no-one’s fault. Science can often be boring and riddled with uncertainties, and movies and TV require plot advancement and definitive results.
But you know what’s a scientific fact? That Henry Cavill’s chin can cut diamond, and if you thrust him into a cosplay outift he probably already had at home and send him out to slaughter a bunch of CGI monsters you’ll get something that is at the very least mildly enjoyable. And if you’re an invasion ecologist who runs a podcast looking at the ecology of movie monsters, mildly enjoyable monsters are enough to dedicate a blog post to.
Deer mice like the one above are small parts of a complex and interconnected world. When two pieces of their world work against them simultaneously, how are these mice affected? (Image Credit: USDA, CC BY 2.0).
Botfly infections impair the aerobic performance and survival of montane populations of deer mice, Peromyscus maniculatus rufinus (2019) Wilde et al., Functional Ecology, https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13276
Parasites are bad news for the organisms that host them. Some parasites are so bad, they can actually make the host kill itself. Despite these clear and obvious costs to infection, the common consensus is that parasites are not too big of a deal for the host, because of how rare parasitic infection is on average. For example, in my research system only one in ten animals have parasites.
But when these ill-effects of parasitism are combined with other detrimental factors, such as a harsh environment, an organism with parasites is forced to deal with not one but two stressors. The authors of today’s paper were interested in how these effects of parasites may change depending on the environment that the host lived in.