Quoll vs. toad: a toxic brew

A native of Central and South America, the cane toad, Rhinella marina, was introduced to Australia in 1935 with great fanfare. The plan was for the voracious cane toad to eat all of the grey-backed cane beetles that were plaguing sugar cane plantations in northern Australia (a similar introduction had been successful in Puerto Rico).  But the plan failed, in part because there was no cover from predators, so the toads were not enthusiastic about hanging out in sugar cane plantations, and in part because adult beetles live primarily near the tops of sugar cane, and cane toads are poor climbers.


A cane toad. Credit: Ben Philips

So now, northern Australia has a cane toad plague, which is wreaking havoc on ecosystems, and threatening many native species, including the northern quoll, Dasyurus hallucatus. These omnivorous marsupials eat fruit, invertebrates and small vertebrates.  Unfortunately, their long list of food items includes cane toads, which are highly toxic to most consumers, having poison glands that contain bufotoxin, a composite of several very nasty chemicals.  If a northern quoll eats a cane toad, it’s bye bye quoll.

Male captive born northern quoll_EllaKelly

A northern quoll. Credit: Ella Kelly.

Unfortunately most quolls have not gotten the message; huge numbers are dying, and populations are going extinct.  As toads continue their invasion from north to south, more quoll populations, particularly those in northwestern Australia, will be at risk.


Map of Australia showing past (light shading) and recent (dark shading) northern quoll distribution, and present (solid line) and future (dashed line) cane toad distribution.

Some quolls show “toad-smart” behavior and don’t eat toads. Ella Kelly and Ben Phillips are trying to understand how this happens. This is particularly important because a few quoll populations have managed to survive the cane toad plague by virtue of being toad-smart (though 95% of quoll populations have gone extinct in the wake of the cane toad wave). The researchers reason that if there is a genetic basis to toad-smart behavior, it might be possible to introduce toad-smart individuals into populations that have not yet been overrun by cane toads.  These individuals with toad-smart genes would breed and spread their genes through their adopted population.  This strategy of targeted gene flow would give the recipient population the genetic variation needed, so that some individuals (those with toad-smart genes) would be more likely to survive the cane toad invasion.  Over time toad-smart behavior would spread throughout the population via natural selection.

Targeted gene flow requires the trait to be influenced by genes.  To test for a genetic basis to the toad-smart trait, Kelly and Phillips designed a common-garden experiment, capturing some quolls that had survived the cane toad invasion (toad-exposed), and others from regions that had not yet been exposed (toad-naïve).  At Territory Wildlife Park, Northern Territory, Australia, the researchers bred these quolls to create three lines of offspring: Toad-exposed x toad-exposed, toad-exposed x toad-naïve (hybrids), and toad-naïve x toad-naïve.  They raised these three lines under identical conditions at the park. Kelly and Phillips then asked, are there behavioral differences in how these three lines respond to cane toads?


Northern quoll captured in Northern Territory, Australia. Credit: Ella Kelly.

The researchers set up two experiments.  First they asked, which would a quoll (that had never before experienced a cane toad) prefer to investigate if given the choice: a dead cane toad or a dead mouse? It turned out that the quoll offspring with two toad-exposed parents were somewhat more interested in mice than in cane toads.  The same was true for the hybrids.  However, the toads with two toad-naïve parents showed little preference.

Second, and more important, the researchers gave quolls from the three lines the opportunity to eat a toad leg (which does not have enough poison to harm the quoll). The results of this experiment were striking; offspring of toad-naïve parents were twice as likely to eat the toad leg than were offspring of toad-exposed parents, or hybrids with one parent of each type.


Proportion of toad-naive (both parents toad-naive), hybrid and toad-exposed (both parents toad-exposed) quoll offspring that ate a cane toad leg. Error bar = +/- 1 SE.

Kelly and Phillips conclude that toad-smart behavior is a genetically-based trait that has been under strong natural selection in populations of quolls that survived the cane toad invasion.  Hybrid offspring behave similarly to the offspring of two toad-exposed parents, suggesting that toad-smart behavior has a dominance inheritance pattern. The researchers propose using targeted gene flow, in this case introducing toad-adapted individuals into populations prior to the arrival of cane toads. Recently, Kelly and Phillips released 54 offspring with toad-smart genetic backgrounds onto Indian Island, which is about 40 km from Darwin.  The island has a large cane toad population, so the researchers will follow the introduced quoll population to see whether it is genetically equipped to survive in the presence of the cane toad scourge.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Kelly, E. and Phillips, B. L. (2019), Targeted gene flow and rapid adaptation in an endangered marsupial. Conservation Biology, 33: 112-121. doi:10.1111/cobi.13149. Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.

Invasive engineers alter ecosystems

Ecosystem engineers  change the environment in a way that influences the availability of essential resources to organisms living within that environment.  Beavers are classic ecosystem engineers; they chop down trees and build dams that change water flow and provide habitat for many species, and alter nutrient and food availability within an ecosystem. Ecologists are particularly interested in understanding what happens when an invasive species also happens to be an ecosystem engineer; how are the many interactions between species influenced by the presence of a novel ecosystem engineer?

For her Ph.D research Linsey Haram studied the effects of the invasive red alga Gracilaria vermiculophylla on native estuarine food webs in the Southeast USA. She wanted to know how much biomass this ecosystem engineer contributed to the system, how it decomposed, and what marine invertebrates ate it. She was spending quite a lot of time in Georgia’s knee-deep mud at low tide, and became acquainted with the shorebirds that zipped around her as she worked. She knew that small marine invertebrates are attracted to the seaweed and are abundant on algae-colonized mudflats, and she wondered if the shorebirds were cueing into that. If so, the non-native alga could affect the food web both directly, by providing more food to invertebrate grazers, and indirectly, by providing habitat for marine invertebrates and thus boosting resources for shorebirds.


A least sandpiper forages on a red algae-colonized mudflat. Credit: Linsey Haram.

Since the early 2000’s, Gracilaria vermiculophylla has dramatically changed estuaries in southeast USA by creating novel habitat on mudflats that had previously been mostly bare, due to high turbidity and a lack of hard surface for algal attachment.  But this red alga has a symbiotic association with a native tubeworm, Diopatra cuprea, that attaches the seaweed to its tube so it can colonize the mudflats.  This creates a more hospitable environment to many different invertebrates, providing cover from heat, drying out, and predators, while also providing food to invertebrates that graze on the algae.

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Closeup view of the red alga Gracilaria vermiculophylla, an invasive ecosystem engineer.  Credit: Linsey Haram

Haram and her colleagues decided to investigate how algae presence might be influencing bird distribution and behavior.  They realized that this influence might be scale-dependent; on a large spatial scale birds may see the algae from afar and be drawn to an algae-rich mudflat, while on a smaller spatial scale, differences in foraging behavior may lead to differences in how a particular species uses the algal patches in comparison to bare patches.

To explore large scale effects, the researchers counted all shorebirds (as viewed from a boat) on 500 meter transects along six bare mudflats and six algal mudflats.  They also measured algal density (even algal mudflats have large patches without algae), and invertebrate distribution and abundance both on the surface and buried within the sediment. These surveys showed that shorebirds, in general, were much more common on algal mudflats. As you can see, this trend was stronger in some shorebird species than others, and one species (graph f below) showed no significant trend.


Field surveys of shorebird density (#/ha) on six bare mudflats compared to six mudflats colonized by Gracilaria vermiculophylla. * indicates weak trend (0.05 < P < 0.10), ** indicates a stronger difference (P < 0.05).  Bold horizontal bars are median values. Common names of species are (b) dunlin, (c) small sandpipers, (d) ruddy turnstone, (e) black-bellied plover, (f) semipalmated plover, (g) willet, (h) short-billed dowitcher.

Algal mudflats had a much greater abundance and biomass of invertebrates living on the surface, particularly isopods and snails, which presumably attracted some of these birds.  However, below the surface, there were no significant differences in invertebrate abundance and biomass when comparing mudflats with and without algae.

Having shown that on a large spatial scale shorebirds tend to visit algal mudflats, Haram and her colleagues then turned their attention to bird preferences on a smaller spatial scale. First, they conducted experiments on an intermediate scale, observing bird foraging preferences on 10 X 20 plots with or without algae.  They then turned their attention to an even smaller scale, by observing the foraging behavior on a <1mscale.  On each sampling day, the researchers observed individuals of seven different shorebird species on a mudflat with algal patches, to see whether focal birds spent more time foraging on algal patches or bare mud.  During each 3-minute observation, researchers recorded the number of pecks made into algal patches vs. bare mud, and compared that to the expected peck distribution based on the observed ratio of algal-cover to bare mud (which was a ratio of 27:73).

On the smallest scale, two of the species, Calidras minutilla and Aranaria interpres, showed a very strong preferences for foraging in algae, while a third species, Calidris alpine, showed a weak algal preference. In contrast, Calidris species (several species of difficult-to-distinguish sandpipers) and Charadrius semipalmatus strongly preferred foraging in bare mud, while the remaining two species showed no preference.


Small-scale foraging preferences  (x–axis) of shorebirds. Solid blue curve is the strength of population preference (in terms of probability – y-axis) for mudflats, while solid red curve is the strength of population preference for algae.  Dashed curves are individual preferences.  Red arrows at 0.27 indicates the proportion of the mudflat that is covered with algae, while the blue arrow at 0.73 represents the proportion of bare mudflat (and hence indicate random foraging decisions).  Filled arrows are significantly different from random, shaded arrows are slightly different from random, while unfilled arrows are random. Common names of species are: (a) dunlin, (b) least sandpiper, (c) small sandpipers, (d) ruddy turnstone, (e) semipalmated plover, (f) willet, (g) short-billed dowitcher.

If you compare the two sets of graphs above, you will note that in some cases shorebird preferences for algae are similar across large and small spatial scales, but for other species, these preferences may vary with spatial scale.  For example, Arenaria interpres was attracted to algal mudflats on a large scale, and once present, these birds foraged exclusively amongst the algae, shunning any mud that lacked algae.  Small sandpipers (Calidris species) also were attracted to algal mudflats on a large scale, but in contrast to Arenaria interpres, these sandpipers foraged exclusively in bare mud, rather than in the algae.

The researchers conclude that different species have different habitat preferences across spatial scales in response to Gracilaria vermiculophylla. Most, but not all, species were more attracted to mudflats that harbored the invasive ecosystem engineer.  But once there, shorebird small-scale preference varied in response to species-specific foraging strategy.  For example, the ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres) discussed in the previous paragraph, forages by turning over stones (hence its name) shells and clumps of vegetation, eating any invertebrates it uncovers.  Accordingly, it forages primarily in algal clumps.  In contrast, willets (Tringa semipalmata), short-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus) and dunlins (Calidris alpine) were all attracted strongly to algal mudflats, but showed basically random foraging on a small spatial scale, showing little or no preference for algal clumps.  The researchers explain that these three species use their very long beaks to probe deeply beneath the surface, using tactile cues to grab prey. So unlike the ruddy turnstone and some other species that forage for surface invertebrates, they don’t use the algae as a cue that food is available below.  Thus species identity, and consequent morphology, behavior and foraging niche are all important parts of how a community responds to an invasive ecosystem engineer.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Haram, L. E., Kinney, K. A., Sotka, E. E. and Byers, J. E. (2018), Mixed effects of an introduced ecosystem engineer on the foraging behavior and habitat selection of predators. Ecology, 99: 2751-2762. doi:10.1002/ecy.2495. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

The complex life of the pea

As a behavioral ecologist, I’m spending a surprising amount of time reading and writing about plants these days.  It turns out that plants are amazingly complex and interactive; you just need to know where and how to look.  Today we will discuss the humble pea plant, how it is infected with a virus that is carried by an aphid that sucks its xylem, and how a herbivorous weevil fits into the whole system.   The virus is the pea enation mosaic virus (PEMV), which causes pea leaves to yellow and wither, and also creates enations (scaly tissue) to develop on a leaf’s undersides. The aphid vector (a vector is the organism that carries a disease) is Acrythosiphon pisum, while the herbivorous weevil is Sitona lineatus.


Pea plant infected with pea enation mosaic virus. Credit Paul Chisholm.

David Crowder has been studying plant/insect interactions for many years, and knew that most researchers who studied interactions between plants and insect vectors focused their attention on the plants, insects and the disease, but did not consider how other species in the community might affect this relationship. Paul Chisholm was a PhD student in Crowder’s lab; and working with two other researchers, they explored whether S. lineatus, an abundant herbivore of peas, influenced viral transmission.  They expected that if the pea was first attacked by the weevil, it might be more susceptible to subsequent viral infection.  Conversely, if the pea was infected by the virus, it might be less able to chemically defend itself against subsequent herbivory by the weevil.


(Left) Pea aphids. Credit: Shipher Wu under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License. (Right) Very adult pea leaf weevils, Sitona lineatus. Credit: Gail Hampshire under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License

It is easy to visually distinguish between PEMV-infected and uninfected plants, so the researchers could assess whether infected plants tended to suffer more defoliation by weevils than did uninfected plants.  They visited 12 different fields in northern Washington and western Idaho, USA, and measured defoliation by counting the number of feeding notches left by the weevils after feeding on 3 – 10 infected pea plants and an equal number of nearby uninfected plants on each field (more feeding notches = more defoliation).  They discovered that PEMV-infected plants tended to suffer substantially higher herbivory than did uninfected plants


Herbivory (as measured by number of feeding notches) caused by weevils on paired uninfected (black bars) and PEMV-infected (blue bars) pea plants sampled from 12 different fields. Error bars for all figures represent 1 SE.

Given the correlation between herbivory and infection, Chisholm and his colleagues then explored whether (1) the weevil preferred to feed on infected plants, and/or whether (2) infective aphids preferred to feed on plants that had been damaged by herbivorous weevils.  Both questions were answered with behavioral choice assays done in a greenhouse. First, the researchers created two groups of pea plants.  The first group, sham infected, were fed on by aphids not carrying PEMV for 48 hours, while the second group of plants were fed on by PEMV-infected aphids for the same duration. Aphids were removed and PEMV infection developed within 15 days in the PEMV infected plants.  The researchers then set up one sham infected and one PEMV-infected plant in a test cage, and released two weevils equidistant from the plants, allowing them to feed for six days.  They discovered that aphids fed much more voraciously on the PEMV-infected plants.


Mean leaf area removed from sham infected and PEMV-infected pea plants.

For the second experiment, the researchers again created two types of plants: undamaged – no herbivory, and damaged – 48 hours of weevil herbivory.  Weevils were then removed, and one leaf from each plant was connected to each end of a tube, while still attached to each plant.


Experimental setup with tube attached to one leaf of each experimental plant.  Aphids were introduced into the central tube. Credit Paul Chisholm. 

The researchers added either 25 infectious or 25 non-infectious aphids, and allowed them 3 hours to choose a leaf.  PEMV-infected aphids preferred damaged leaves, while uninfected aphids showed no preference.


PEMV-infected aphid preference for undamaged (no herbivory) or damaged (weevil herbivory) leaves.

Chisholm and his colleagues then turned their attention to whether weevil herbivory made pea plants more susceptible to PEMV infection.  In one experiment they allowed PEMV-infected aphids to feed on plants for 3 days, and then introduced 0, 1 or 3 weevils who fed on the plants for another 6 days.  They used a protein assay to estimate the PEMV-titer (concentration) of each plant and discovered that the plants that were exposed to greatest herbivory had the highest PEMV titer (see graph below).  In a second experiment the researchers allowed weevil herbivory before adding the aphids, and found no effect of prior herbivory on PEMV titer.


Relative PEMV-titer of infected leaves after they were subjected to herbivory by zero, one or three weevils for six days. different letters above bars indicate significant differences between treatments.

What causes these plant responses to challenges by PEMV and weevils?  The researchers discovered that levels of three important plant hormones increased either in response to PEMV infection, weevil herbivory or both.  At this point it is not clear how these different hormone levels interact to bring about the changes we’ve described.

The researchers conclude that weevil behavior has a profound influence on the interactions between aphids, the viruses they carry and the pea plants they feed on (and infect).  The weevil is not a vector for the virus, yet it affects the virus directly by altering plant behavior and physiology and indirectly by altering the behavior of the vector (the aphids).  PEMV outbreaks are more likely when weevils are abundant, as aphids prefer damaged plants, and feeding by weevils increased the PEMV titer in infected plants.  Crowder argues that interactions in which a non-vector species influences the relationship between a host and its vector (and the pathogen it carries) are probably extraordinarily common in crop systems.  So if we want to understand crop susceptibility to pathogens we need to cast a broad net and consider both the direct and indirect effects of a community of species that can influence how the crop responds to infection.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Chisholm, P. J., Sertsuvalkul, N. , Casteel, C. L. and Crowder, D. W. (2018), Reciprocal plant‐mediated interactions between a virus and a non‐vector herbivore. Ecology, 99: 2139-2144. doi:10.1002/ecy.2449. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Females are better speakers and better listeners than males – at least in plants

My age puts me smack dab in the middle of the woo-woo generation, when many people engaged in activities, or shared in belief systems, that were criticized as unscientific, spacey or just plain bizarre.  For example, talking to your plants was purported to make them bigger, greener or more florid.  This hypothesis generated a huge number of science fair projects, but no clear answers (so far as I know – but I admit that I have not done the appropriate research!).  But, it turns out that plants do talk to each other and to some animals.  When attacked by herbivores, many plant species will emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air that can have two effects.  First, these VOCs can alert nearby plants that herbivores are in the area, and that they should start producing defense compounds in their tissues that will repel these herbivores.  Second, these VOCs can alert predators that herbivores are present, and they should swing by and eat them.

Several studies have shown that female and male plants may differ in several ways that could affect communication.  Females typically invest more in reproduction, grow more slowly and invest more in defense against herbivory. Xoaquin Moreira and his colleagues wondered if sexual dimorphism in defense investment would result in differences between males and female in how they talk to each other. They chose the woody shrub Baccharis salicifolia, in which females grow more slowly but invest more in chemical defense and thus are infested by fewer herbivores than are males.  They focused their study on chemical responses of the plant to the highly-specialized aphid Uroleucon macolai, which only feeds on two Baccharis species.


Baccharis salicifolia hosting an army of herbivorous aphids. Credit: X. Moreira.

The researchers used greenhouse experiments to explore how Baccharis uses VOCs for communication.  To control aphid movement, each treatment was done in a mesh cage, with one centrally located VOC emitter plant (of either sex), and one female and one male receiver plant equally distant from the central plant. Control emitter plants were untreated, while herbivore-induced emitter plants were given 15 mature aphids, which fed and reproduced on the plants for 15 days.  After 15 days Moreira and his colleagues removed all of the emitter plants and all of the aphids, and then inoculated each receiver plant with two adult aphids.  The researchers measured aphid reproductive rate on the fifth day as their measure of aphid performance, or of plant resistance to aphids.


Emitter Baccharis salicifolia plant flanked by one male and one female receiver plant. Credit X. Moreira.

Aphids did much more poorly on male and female receiver plants that were associated with male herbivore-induced emitter plants (top graph below).  This implies that these receiver plants became resistant to aphids as a result of their exposure to an airborne substance released by the male emitter plant.  When the researchers used female emitter plants they found something very different.  There was no effect on male receivers, but still a very strong effect on female receivers, which had a much lower aphid reproductive rate than the female plants exposed to untreated female emitter plants (bottom graph below).


Reproductive performance of aphids raised on control receiver plants (emitter plant with no aphids – clear bars) and herbivore-induced emitter plants (gray bars).  Two left bars show performance on male receiver plants, while two right bars show performance on female receiver plants. Top graph shows data for male emitters and bottom graph shows data for female emitters. Error bars = 1 SE. *** indicates P < 0.001.

Showing differences between sexes in communication is important, but the next step is to figure out how this happens.  In previous research, Moreira and his colleagues identified seven different VOCs that Baccharis emitted after aphid herbivory.  So they explored whether there were differences between males and females in how much of each VOC they emitted in response to aphids.  As before, they subjected some plants (of each sex) to herbivory and others were untreated controls. They then bagged each plant, and passed the collected vapors over a charcoal filter trap at a constant rate for an equal period of time.  After extracting the substances from the charcoal, the researchers used a gas chromatograph to identify and quantify the VOCs.


Setup for collecting VOCs from Baccharis salicifolia. Credit X. Moreira.

The most impressive finding was a fivefold increase in pinocarvone release by female herbivore-induced plants in comparison to controls.  In contrast, in males there was only a minor pinocarvone effect.


Relative increase in VOC emission following aphid attack in female (clear triangle) vs. male (filled triangle) Baccharis salicifolia. The induction effect is the log response ration (LRR) which is the natural log of (emission by the herbivore induced plants divided by the emission by the control plants).  Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.

Having discovered that females emit much more pinocarvone than males, the next question was whether females are more sensitive to pinocarvone, or in fact to any of the other VOCs.  So Moreira and his colleagues exposed plants to one of three treatments: 100 ul of pure pinocarvone, 100 ul of six VOCs including pinocarvone, and a control (no VOCs).  They discovered that all experimental treatments reduced herbivory in comparison to the controls, but that there was no difference between males and females in how they responded.


Reproductive performance of aphids raised on female plants (left graph) or male plants (right graph) subjected to pinocarvone or a blend of six VOCs (including pinocarvone) in comparison to reproductive performance on untreated control plants (dashed line on top of each graph).  Shading surrounding dashed line indicates 1 SE.  Error bars are 1 SE.

This lack of different response between male and female plants to pinocarvone was a bit surprising; the researchers speculate that both males and females have pinocarvone receptors, but that female receptors are more sensitive (or numerous). If true, natural emissions of pinocarvone may suffice to induce a response in female but not male plants. But the artificial emitters may have released enough pinocarvone to stimulate male plants to respond as well. Clearly there is much more work to do here.

The researchers also wanted to know whether plants were more sensitive to VOCs produced by genetically identical plants (clones) in comparison to genetically-distant plants.  They discovered no influence of genetic relatedness on plant response to herbivory.  This is important, because from an evolutionary standpoint, there is no obvious reason why a plant would want to warn an unrelated plant that it was about to get eaten. An adaptive explanation is that relatives may tend to live near each other, so an emitter plant still benefits indirectly by promoting the survival of relatives who carry a proportion of genes identical to its own genetic constitution. One possible non-adaptive explanation is that a plant may use VOCs as a way of quickly communicating with itself, informing distant tissues that they need to produce defense compounds.  Nearby plants may simply be eavesdropping on this conversation, and using it to their advantage.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Moreira, X., Nell, C. S., Meza‐Lopez, M. M., Rasmann, S. and Mooney, K. A. (2018), Specificity of plant–plant communication for Baccharis salicifolia sexes but not genotypes. Ecology, 99: 2731-2739. doi:10.1002/ecy.2534. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.


Girl and boy flowers support different microbe communities.

Most of us are accustomed to thinking about sexual dimorphism in animals.  Male lions have manes, and male deer have antlers and generally larger bodies than female deer.  In many species, male birds have more complex sings and more colorful plumage. Perhaps less familiar is that female insects are generally larger than males of the same species.  But many of us are unaware that sexual dimorphism exists in some plant species as well.

As a child, Kaoru Tsuji spent considerable time watching insects on plants.  Later, as an undergraduate at Kyoto University in Japan, she noticed that larvae of a particular geometrid moth only visited male Eurya japonica plants, but not females. This led to her graduate work on how plant sexes affect herbivorous insects, and later, more broadly, on how plant sexual dimorphism affects other species in the community.


Kaoru Tsuji gazes at female Eurya emarginata plant. Credit: Noriyo Tsuji.

At the 2014 Ecological Society of America meetings, Tsuji heard Tadashi Fukami talk about microbial communities in flower nectar, and realized that she could learn to apply Fukami’s techniques to the microbial communities living within Eurya flowers.  After working three months in Tadashi’s lab, Tsuji was now ready to explore whether two plant species, Eurya japonica and Eurya emarginata, host different communities of bacteria and fungi in the flowers of male and female plants.


Male and female flowers of the two study species visited by pollinators.  These photos are not to scale; in actuality the male flower is substantially larger.  You can get a sense of this by noting that the same insect pollinator, the fly Stomorhina obsoleta, is pictured in figure a and near the top left of figure b.

For both species, male flowers tend to be larger, while female flowers tend to have sweeter nectar. Higher sugar levels will increase the chemical stress experienced by microbial organisms living in the nectar. Because the inside of a microbial cell has a lower sugar concentration (and thus a higher water concentration) than the sugar rich nectar environment, water tends to leave the microbial cell, leading to severe dehydration. Thus Tsuji and Fukami expected to find lower microbial abundance in female flower nectar.

Complicating this situation, animal visitors, such as bees and flies, also influence the microbial community in at least two ways.  First, many nectar-colonizing microbes depend on animals to disperse them to new flowers. Second, the interaction of nectar production, water evaporation and consumption by bees and flies can change the concentration of sugar in the nectar.  If there are few (or no) animals drinking the nectar, water will evaporate, sugar will remain, and the nectar will become more and more concentrated (sweeter) as more nectar is secreted over time.  But if nectar gets consumed, the new secretions will simply replace the old nectar, and sugar levels should be relatively constant. Thus flowers without animal visitors should impose more chemical stress on microorganisms by virtue of being sweeter.

The researchers sampled nectar from 1736 flowers, and grew the nectar microbes on agar plates supplied with nutrients that would support either bacterial or fungal growth.  In addition, the researchers also placed small-mesh bags over a subset of these flowers (before they opened), to reduce animal visitation.  After five days they counted the number of colonies formed, to estimate microbial abundance. Unfortunately, microbes were rarely found in E. japonica, so most of the data are for E. emarginata flowers only.


Female flowers of Eurya emarginata visited by a fly, Stomorhina obsoleta. Agar plates showing isolated colonies of nectar-colonizing microbes are superimposed. Left and right plates have yeast and bacterial colonies, respecitevly, both isolated from E. emarginata nectar. Credit: Kaoru Tsuji and Yuichiro Kanzaki.

First, as expected, female flowers had higher nectar sugar levels than did male flowers (the Brix value measures sucrose concentration).  In addition, putting a fine mesh bag over the buds substantially increased sugar levels in nectar from flowers of both sexes.


Sucrose (Brix) concentration of exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers of both sexes.  For box plots, the dark horizontal bar is the median value, while the box encloses the 25th and 75th percentile.

The proportion of flowers in which fungi and bacteria were detected was much greater in male flowers than in female flowers.  In male flowers only, bagging the flowers decreased fungal frequency but not bacteria frequency.


The proportion of exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers whose nectar, when cultured in the appropriate medium, generated fungal colonies (top graph) and bacterial colonies (bottom graph).

The researchers used colony forming units (CFUs) – the number of viable colonies on the agar plate – as their measure of bacterial abundance.


Abundance of fungi (top) and bacteria (bottom) cultured in agar plates, that were swabbed with nectar derived from exposed and bagged E. emarginata flowers of both sexes. Note that the y-axis is log10 CFUs, so an increase from 3 to 4 (for example) is actually a tenfold increase in number of CFUs.

As expected, fungi were less abundant in female flower nectar than in male flower nectar.  In addition, bagging the flowers substantially reduced fungal abundance. Bacteria were also less abundant in female flower nectar than in male flower nectar.  Surprisingly, bagging the flowers substantially increased bacterial abundance, despite the increased chemical stress and decreased visitation by animal visitors.

Why did bacterial abundance increase when flowers were bagged?  The researchers hypothesize that reduced fungal dispersal from bagging caused competitive release of bacteria from the fungi.  Presumably the fungi and bacteria compete for essential resources (such as amino acids) in the nectar.  Because the bags reduce fungal abundance, there are fewer fungi to out-compete the bacteria, leading to an increase in bacterial abundance.

The researchers used DNA analysis to characterize which microbial species were found in female vs. male flowers.  They discovered major differences in species composition between the sexes.  Taken together with the data on frequency and abundance, it is clear that sexual dimorphism in these plants influences microbial communities in significant ways.  Tsuji and Fukami suggest that sexual dimorphism in many species may have profound community-wide consequences that researchers are only beginning to understand and uncover.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Tsuji, K. and Fukami, T. (2018), Community‐wide consequences of sexual dimorphism: evidence from nectar microbes in dioecious plants. Ecology, 99: 2476-2484. doi:10.1002/ecy.2494. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Coral can recover (occasionally)

Coral reefs have amazing species diversity, which depends, in part, on a mutualism between the coral animal and a group of symbiotic algae that live inside the coral. The algae provide the coral host with approximately 90% of the energy it needs (from photosynthetic product).  In return, the algae are rewarded with a place to live and a generous allotment of nitrogen (mostly fecal matter) from the coral.  Unfortunately, coral are under attack from a variety of sources. Most problematic, humans are releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is increasing ocean temperatures and also making the ocean more acidic.  Both processes can kill coral by causing coral to eject their symbiotic algae, making it impossible for the coral to get enough nutrients.

Moorea Coral Reef LTER site

The coral reef at Mo’orea. Credit: Moorea Coral Reef LTER site.

But other factors threaten coral ecosystems as well. For example, the reefs of Mo’orea , French Polynesia (pictured above), were attacked by the voracious seastar, Acanthaster planci, between 2006-2010, which reduced the coral cover (the % of the ocean floor that is covered with coral when viewed from above) from 45.8% in 2006 to 6.4% in 2009.  Then, in Feb 2010, Cyclone Oli hit, and by April, mean coral cover had plummeted down to 0.4%.

Moorea swimmers

Researchers survey the reef at Mo’orea. Credit: Peter Edmunds.

Peter Edmunds has been studying the coral reef ecosystem at Mo’orea for 14 years, and has observed firsthand the sequence of reef death, and the subsequent recovery.  Working with Hannah Nelson and Lorenzo Bramanti, he wanted to document the recovery process, and to identify the underlying mechanisms.  Fortunately Mo’orea is a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, one of 28 such sites funded by the United States National Science Foundation.  Consequently the researchers had long term data available to them, so they could document how coral abundance had changed since 2005.  Their analysis showed the decline in coral cover from 2007 to 2010, but a remarkable rapid recovery beginning in 2012 and continuing through 2017.


% cover (+ SE) of all coral , Pocillopora coral (the species group that the research team focused on). and macroalgae at Mo’orea over a 13 year period based on LTER data. The horizontal bar with COTs above it represents the time period of maximum seastar predation.

What factors caused this sharp recovery? One general process that could be part of the answer is density dependence, whereby populations have high growth rates when densities are low and there is very little competition, and low growth rates when densities are high and there is a great deal of competition between individuals, or in this case, between colonies. The problem is that though density dependence makes intuitive sense, it is difficult to demonstrate, as other factors could underlie the coral recovery.  Perhaps after 2011 there was more food available, or fewer predators, or maybe the weather was better for coral growth.


High density (top) and low density (bottom) quadrats of Pocillopora coral established by the research group.

To more convincingly test for density dependence, Edmunds and his colleagues set up an experiment, establishing 18 1m2 quadrats in April, 2016. The researchers reduced coral cover in nine quadrats to 19.1% by removing seven or eight colonies from each experimental quadrat (low density quadrats), and left the other nine quadrats as unmanipulated controls, with coral cover averaging 32.5% (high density quadrats).  They then asked if, over the course of the next year, more recruits (new colonies < 4cm diameter) became established in the low density quadrats.

Returning in 2017, the researchers discovered substantially greater recruitment in the low density quadrats than in the high density quadrats. This experiment provides strong evidence that the rapid recovery after devastation by seastars and Cyclone Oli was helped by a density dependent response of the coral population – high recruitment at low population density.


Density of recruits just after (left), and one year after (right) the quadrats were established. Solid bars are means (+ SE) for high density quadrats, while clear bars are means (+ SE) for low density quadrats.

In recent years, many coral reef systems around the world have experienced declining coral cover, a loss of fish and invertebrate diversity and abundance, and an increase in abundance of macroalgae.  While many of these reefs continue to decline, others, such as the reefs at the Mo’orea LTER site, are more resilient, and are able to recover from disturbance.  The researchers argue that we need to fully understand the mechanisms underlying recovery – in other words what is causing the density dependent response? Is it simply competition between coral that cause high recruitment under low density, or may interactions between coral and algae be important?  And what types of interactions influence recruitment rates under different densities?  One possibility is that at high densities, coral are eating most of the tiny coral larvae as they descend from the surface after a mass spawning event.  This raises the important question of why many reefs around the world do not show this density dependent response.  Clearly there is much work remaining to be done if we want to preserve this critically endangered marine biome.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Edmunds, P. J., Nelson, H. R. and Bramanti, L. (2018), Density‐dependence mediates coral assemblage structure. Ecology, 99: 2605-2613. doi:10.1002/ecy.2511. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Beautiful buds beset bumblebees with bad bugs

Sexual liaisons can be difficult to achieve without some type of purposeful motion.  Flowering plants, which are rooted to the ground, are particularly challenged to bring the male close enough to the female to have sex.  One awesome adaptation is pollen, technically the male gametophyte –  or gamete (sperm)-generating plant. These tiny males get to females either by floating through the air, or by being transferred by animal pollinators such as bees. Plants can lure bees to their flowers by producing nectar – a sugar rich fluid – which bees lap up and use as a carbohydrate source.  While nectaring, bees also collect pollen, either intentionally or inadvertently, which provides them with essential proteins. When bees travel to the next flower, they may inadvertently drop some of their pollen load near the female gametophyte – in this case a tiny egg-generating plant (though tiny, the female gametophyte is considerably larger than is the male gametophyte).  We call this process of “tiny boy meets tiny girl” pollination. Once the two gametophytes meet, the pollen produces one or more sperm, which it uses to fertilize an egg within the female gametophyte.  There is more to it, but this will hopefully clarify the difference between pollination and fertilization.


Bumblebee forages on beebalm, Monarda didyma. Credit: Jonathan Giacomini.

All of this business takes place within the friendly confines of the flower.  The same flower may be visited by many different bees of many different species. While feeding, bees carry on other bodily functions, including defecation.  They are not careful about where they defecate; consequently a bee’s breakfast might also include feces from a previous bee visitor. Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) feces carries many disease organisms, including the gut parasite Crithidia bombi, which can reduce learning, decrease colony reproduction and impair a queen’s ability to found new colonies. Because pollinators are so critical in ecosystems, Lynn Adler and her colleagues wondered whether certain types of flowers were better vectors for harboring and transmitting Crithidia bombi to other bumblebees.


Bumblebee forages on the snapdragon, Antirrhinum majus. Credit: Jonathan Giacomini.

The researchers chose 14 different flowering plant species, allowing uninfected bumblebees to forage on inflorescences (clusters of flowers) inoculated with a measured amount of Crithidia bombi parasites.  The bees were reared for seven days after exposure, and then were assessed for whether they had picked up the infection from their foraging experience, and if so, how intense the infection was. The researchers dissected each tested bee and counted the number of Crithidia cells within the gut.


Researcher conducts foraging trial with Lobelia siphilitica inflorescence. Credit: Jonathan Giacomini.

Adler and her colleagues discovered that some plant species caused a much higher pathogen count (mean number of infected cells in the bee gut) than did other plant species.  For example bees that foraged on Asclepias incarnata (ASC) had four times as many pathogens, on average, than did bees that foraged on Digitalis purpurea (DIG) (top graph below). Bees foraging on Asclepias were much more likely to get infected (had greater susceptibility) than bees that foraged on several other species, most notably Linaria vulgaris (LIN) and Eupatorium perfoliatum (EUP) (middle graph). Lastly, if we limit our consideration to infected bees, the mean intensity of the infection was much greater for bees foraging on some species, such as Asclepias and Monarda didyma (MON) than on others, such as Digitalis and Antirrhinum majus (ANT) (bottom graph).


(Top graph) Mean number of Crithidia (2 microliter gut sample) hosted by bees after foraging on one of 14 different flowering plant species. This graph includes both infected and uninfected bees. (Middle graph) Susceptibility – the proportion of bees infected – after foraging trials on different plant species. (Bottom graph) Intensity of infection – Mean number of Crithidia for infected bees only. The capital letters below the graph are the first three letters of the plant genus. Numbers in bars are sample size.  Error bars indicate 1 standard error.

It would be impossible to repeat this experiment on the 369,000 known species of flowering plants (with many more still to be identified).  So Adler and her colleagues really wanted to know whether there were some flower characteristics or traits associated with plant species that served as the best vectors of disease.  The researchers measured and counted variables associated with the flowers, such as the size and shape of the corolla, the number of open flowers and the number of reproductive structures (flowers, flower buds and fruits) per inflorescence.


Flower traits measured by Adler and colleagues (example for blue lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica). CL is corolla length. CW is corolla width. PL is petal length. PW is petal width. Credit: Melissa Ha.

The researchers also wanted to know whether any variables associated with the bees, such as bee size and bee behavior, would predict how likely it was that a bee would get infected.  Surprisingly, the number of reproductive structures per inflorescence stood out as the most important variable. In addition, smaller bees were somewhat more likely to get infected than larger bees, and bees that foraged for a longer time period were more prone to infection.


Mean susceptibility of bees to Crithidia infection after foraging on 14 different flowering plant species, in relation to the number of reproductive structures (flowers, buds and fruits) per inflorescence.

These findings are both surprising and exciting. Adler and her colleagues were surprised to find such big differences in the ability of plant species to transmit disease.  In addition, they were puzzled about the importance of number of reproductive structures per inflorescence.  At this point, they don’t have a favorite hypothesis for its overriding importance, speculating that some unmeasured aspect of floral architecture influencing disease transmission might be related to the number of reproductive structures per inflorescence.


Bumblebee forages on Penstemon digitalis. In addition to the open flowers, note the large number of unopened buds.  Each of these counted as a reproductive structure for the graph above. Credit: Jonathan Giacomini.

The world is losing pollinators at a rapid rate, and there are concerns that if present trends continue, there may not be enough pollinators to pollinate flowers of some of our most important food crops. Disease is implicated in many of these declines, so it behooves us to understand how plants can serve as vectors of diseases that affect pollinators. Identifying floral traits that influence disease transmission could guide the creation of pollinator-friendly habitats within plant communities, and help to maintain diverse pollinator communities within the world’s ecosystems.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Adler, L. S., Michaud, K. M., Ellner, S. P., McArt, S. H., Stevenson, P. C. and Irwin, R. E. (2018), Disease where you dine: plant species and floral traits associated with pathogen transmission in bumble bees. Ecology, 99: 2535-2545. doi:10.1002/ecy.2503. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.