Tag Archives: population

Pinning it on the Polar Bear

Image Credit: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

It’s an image that is ubiquitous in the media when the words ‘climate change’ pop up. The lone polar bear, drifting through the sea on a single ice floe. It is an effective image, evoking emotions like pity, loneliness and general despair for the plight of what has become the flagship species of what seems like the entire Arctic. But is associating the health of an entire ecosystem with one species useful, or dangerous?

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Parrots in Norway

The Norwegian landscape is a beautiful thing. Spruce and pine groves piled on the side of mountains and fjords, moose and deer popping up in backyards, woodbirds flitting about on pristine hiking trails. Parrots screeching bloody murder into your ears as you re-enter the city.

No you did not read that wrong. It’s not happening yet, it in a couple of decades parrots, a type of bird not really associated with the sub-Arctic, could be a regular presence around Norwegian cities. So how could this happen, and why is it really quite concerning?

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Monitoring Freshwater Populations in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Radiation can have extremely negative effects on an individual. But is it as easy to measure its effects on an entire population? (Image Credit: Hnapel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Variation in chronic radiation exposure does not drive life history divergence among Daphnia populations across the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (2019) Goodman et al., Ecology and Evolution, DOI: 10.1002/ece3.4931

The Crux

As anyone who has recently watched HBO’s Chernobyl can tell you, large doses of radiation are capable of doing some pretty serious damage to an organism. But whilst examining the effect of radiation on an individual might be simple, monitoring those effects on a population can be difficult. Whilst radiation negatively effects fitness, it can also help individuals with higher radiation tolerance to reproduce and dominate within the population of a single species, making it difficult to monitor the exact effects of radiation on that population. If a population is filled with only those who were strong enough to survive, you don’t get an idea of the variation in the radiation’s effects.

This week’s researchers tried to break through that problem by looking at different populations of a water flea in Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone (CEZ) – the area still barred from entry in eastern Europe.

What They Did

The researchers sampled populations of the water flea Daphnia pulex (see below) from 8 lakes within the CEZ, all of which had experienced different doses of radiation since the Chernobyl disaster. Information on how much radiation those lakes were subject to was taken from Ukraine’s radiation databases and water samples collected at the site. The 38 types of Daphnia from the 8 lakes were then transported back to a laboratory and bred for three generations. The survival and reproductive success of this third generation was then modelled against radiation dose.

Did You Know: Daphnia as Study Organisms

Some species are frequently used across different ecological disciplines as model organisms. One example is the genus Daphnia, a genus of water fleas. They have a short life cycle, and can reproduce asexually. This means that scientists have the opportunity to disentangle environmental effects on populations of genetically similar individuals, as well as between populations of different genetic backgrounds.

What They Found

Whilst reproductive success and survival varied between the populations of Daphnia at different lakes, this did not seem to occur as a result of radiation dose. Radiation did not have a pronounced effect on any fitness variable.

Problems?

Daphnia_pulex

The water flea Daphnia, here used to test the effects of radiation on populations (Image Credit: Paul Hebert, CC BY 2.5)

Sample size is of course an issue here. Only having 8 lakes to compare the effects of radiation on populations was always going to make an effect of radiation dose hard to find. It was made more difficult by the fact that the effects of one lake were significantly different to the others, skewing results considerably. This is of course no fault of the authors, and hopefully technology in the future will allow us to expand the data used in these projects.

So What?

It’s important to note here that these results do not necessarily mean that radiation has no effect on Daphnia populations. Radiation is known to have negative effects on individual fitness, so what this study could tell us is that we need to view radiation as an environmental process which acts in concert with a variety of other biotic factors. Perhaps a study which takes into account further environmental variables and more lake populations would be able to further advance the work done in this paper.

The Best and Worst Movie Scientists

We look at some of our favourite and least favourite movie scientists. Includes rants about lab coats, self testing and Spiderman.

2:12 – Robert Neville (I Am Legend)
8:32 – Curt Connors (The Amazing Spiderman)
19:38 – Poison Ivy (Batman & Robin)
26:28 – Rhonda LeBeck (Tremors)
30:36 – Victor Frankenstein
34:18 – Ira Kane (Evolution)

You can also find us on iTunes and Google Play.

We also have a bonus episode this week, seeing as we’re on Easter holidays and can’t find the time to record a full one. So please enjoy our analysis of the ecological ramifications of The Snap.

Extreme Warming Events Could Increase Reindeer Population Stability

Extreme warming events may sound like bad news to reindeer, but they could help increase population stability

Extreme warming events may sound like bad news to reindeer, but they could help increase population stability (Image Credit: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0)

More frequent extreme climate events stabilize reindeer population dynamics (2019) Hansen et al., Nature Communications, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09332-5

The Crux

Whilst climate change has been causing (and will cause) a myriad of environmental problems, it’s important to remember that not all species will be negatively affected by more extreme weather events. One example is reindeer on the Arctic island of Svalbard, according to this week’s paper.

Taken at face value, an increased frequency of extreme warming events may not sound like a good idea for a cold-adapted species. But despite the fact that it can lead to rain falling and freezing over snow, rendering massive patches of food inaccessible, the authors show that this can actually lead to increased population stability.

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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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