Spotted salamander performance per polymorphism persistence

His first winter at the University of Mississippi Field Station, Matt Pintar was wading through some ponds where he noticed a large number of egg masses. Clear jelly surrounded most of these egg masses, but a whitish jelly encased some of them. These egg masses were produced by the spotted salamander, Abystoma maculatum, which immediately made Pintar wonder why these differences exist within this species. Biologists use the term “polymorphism” to describe a situation like this, in which two or more forms (poly = multiple, morph = form) exist within a population.


White egg mass (left) and clear egg mass (right). Credit: Matt Pintar

Could it simply be random chance that there were two egg mass morphs? Or was one morph better than the other in getting fertilized by the appropriate sperm, or in keeping the eggs together? Alternatively, perhaps one morph was better at providing nutrients or protecting against predators. The puzzle is that if one morph was superior to the other, then that morph would be favored by natural selection, should outcompete the other, and ultimately cause the second morph to go extinct. So why did both morphs persist in this population of spotted salamanders?


Adult male spotted salamander. Credit Matt Pintar

Pintar embryos

Recently hatched larvae. Credit Matt Pintar.

Pintar and his colleague Willliam Resetarits Jr. thought it most likely that the polymorphism was a chance event that provided no benefit to the salamanders. But they did consider the alternative that one morph might be better in some conditions, while the other morph was better in other conditions. Surveys done about 25 years ago suggested that the polymorphism might be connected to differences in water chemistry, so Pintar and Resetarits decided to explore this possible link with a combination of observations of natural ponds and field experiments on artificial ponds.

Pintar ponds

Ponds at the University of Mississippi Field Station. Credit Matt Pintar.

Nutrient levels of ponds at the field station are influenced by two major factors: the type of surrounding habitat and the duration of time each pond holds water over the course of the year (the hydroperiod). Ponds surrounded by trees, as opposed to grass, have higher nutrient levels courtesy of tree leaves that fall into the ponds and leach out their nutrients. Many of these ponds dry out in the summer, so ponds with a longer hydroperiod will have more time to receive and leach nutrients from organic matter.

Ecologists often use water conductivity as a general measure of pond nutrient levels. Ponds with high conductivity have higher nutrient levels than ponds with low conductivity. Pintar and Resetarits sampled the water from 55 ponds and counted the number of white and clear egg masses from 40 ponds that had egg masses in 2015 and 2016. They found a striking relationship between conductivity and egg mass morph. White egg masses were much more common in low-nutrient (low conductivity) ponds.


Proportion of white egg masses in relation to water conductivity (a measure of nutrient level)

The researchers further explored this relationship by setting up artificial ponds that contained either low or high nutrient levels (obtained by putting leaf litter into some of the pools), and inoculating each pond with both white and clear egg masses. Pintar and Resetarits made sure that larvae were not mixed up once they hatched. They then measured the effects of both nutrient levels and morph on many variables associated with growth and development in these artificial ponds.


Some of the artificial ponds used for controlled experiments on the effects of nutrient levels. Credit: Matt Pintar.

In general, eggs from white masses had a significantly higher rate of hatching (about 80%) at both nutrient levels than did eggs from clear masses (about 60%). But eggs from white masses took longer to hatch (Figure (c) below). Importantly, larvae from white masses tended to grow better under low-nutrient conditions than did larvae from clear masses. In contrast, larvae from clear masses grew better under high-nutrient conditions than did larvae from white masses (Figures (d, e, f) below).


The relationship between nutrient level and (c) days to hatching, (d) snout-vent length (the distance between the tip of the snout and the cloacal opening), (e) total length and (f) body mass.

These findings indicate that the polymorphism is advantageous in environments with considerable variation in nutrient levels. The white morph tends to do well at low nutrient levels, while the clear morph does better at higher nutrient levels. Pintar and Resetarits suggest that these differences in growth and development are likely to translate to higher adult survival and reproductive rates. The researchers used population modeling to demonstrate that under realistic conditions in which some individuals migrate from one pond to another, both morphs will persist indefinitely in ponds of varying nutrient levels.

We still don’t know why the two morphs perform differently under these different conditions. We do know that the outer jelly layer of white egg masses have white crystals made of proteins that are not water soluble, while the outer jelly layer of clear egg masses have smaller water soluble proteins. Pintar speculates that the firmer consistency of white egg masses could cause them to degrade more slowly and to retain their constituent nutrients more effectively than do the clear morphs.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Pintar, Matthew R., and William J. Resetarits Jr. “Persistence of an egg mass polymorphism in Ambystoma maculatum: differential performance under high and low nutrients.” Ecology (2017). The print version will probably come out in May or June of this year. Meanwhile, you can access it here. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Mustard musters its troops

North American forests are being invaded. The invading forces use chemical warfare to attack the native inhabitants and to repel counterattacks by hostile enemies. As it turns out, the invader is the humble garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, which releases toxic chemical compounds into the soil that reduce the growth rate of many native plant species, and has strong chemical defenses that makes it unpalatable to most herbivores.

garlic mustard field

Garlic mustard invasion. Credit Pam Henderson

Lauren Smith-Ramesh wondered why garlic mustard was not even more successful as an invader. Its chemical arsenal should allow it to overrun an area, but she (and many other researchers before her) observed that garlic mustard invasions often decline after a while. As part of her investigations into garlic mustard’s use of chemicals to inhibit native plants, Smith-Ramesh collected seeds from plants from different populations. While shaking these seeds into bags, she noticed that web-building spiders often colonized the garlic mustard’s seed-bearing structure (silique). Were these spiders somehow behind the garlic mustard’s surprising lack-of-success?


Garlic musard silique with web. Credit Lauren Smith-Ramesh

Spiders can benefit plants in several ways. As important predators in food webs, spiders can kill large numbers of herbivorous insects that might otherwise attack a plant. In addition the decaying corpses of their insect prey can add vital nutrients to soils. Garlic mustard does not enjoy these potential spider-associated benefits, because spiders colonize the garlic mustard after it has already gone into decline, and also because garlic mustard is already well-protected (chemically) against herbivorous insects.


About 60% of the spiders were this species – Theriodiosoma gemmosum. Credit Tom Murray.

Smith-Ramesh first wanted to understand the relationship between seed structures (siliques) and spider abundance. She established three different types of plots that measured 2 X 2 meters: (1) S+, which had mustards with intact siliques, (2) S-, which had mustards with siliques removed, and (3) N, which had no garlic mustard plants at all in 2015. After several months, she collected all spiders from the middle square meter of each plot. Plots with garlic mustard with intact siliques (S+) had, by far, the highest spider density. S- plots had a somewhat higher spider density than N plots, which Smith-Ramesh attributes to spiders wandering in from just outside the S- plots (which tended to have more silique-bearing garlic mustard plants nearby than did the N plots). Based on this experiment Smith-Ramesh concluded that garlic mustard siliques were dramatically increasing spider density.

SR2b use

But did increased spider density in S+ plots reduce the number of herbivorous insects, thereby benefiting nearby native plants? Smith-Ramesh set up insect traps that collected insects over two 48 hour time periods – once in August and again in September – in each of the S+, S- and N plots. Both surveys showed fewest herbivorous insects in the S+ plots. This supports Smith-Ramesh’s hypothesis that native plants are benefitting from higher spider density associated with garlic mustard siliques.

SR 2c use

Next, Smith-Ramesh wanted to know whether the decrease in herbivorous insects benefitted native plant growth. To test this directly, she transplanted three types of native plants into her S+, S- and N plots. One of the species, the Hairy Wood Mint Blephilia hirsuta, enjoyed a 50% biomass boost in S+ plots compared to S- plots. The other two native plants species showed very little effect.


Smith-Ramesh collecting data with three siliques in the foreground. Credit: Lauren Smith-Ramesh.

Garlic mustard plants with intact siliques also benefitted the soils by increasing the amount of available phosphorus by approximately 60%. This phosphorus may have originated with insect carcasses that made their way into the soil and released their nutrients. In theory, soils with higher phosphorus availability could help support the growth of native plants. Smith-Ramesh plans to explore other plant communities that are suffering from different invasive plants, to see whether these invaders are also inadvertently providing resources or conditions that may undermine the success of their invasion.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Smith‐Ramesh, L. M. (2017). Invasive plant alters community and ecosystem dynamics by promoting native predators. Ecology98(3), 751-761. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Golden Eagles: no tilting at windmills

Todd Katzner and several other scientists were puzzled by a vexing problem. They knew that the wind turbines at Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area (APWRA) were killing large numbers of Golden Eagles that flew into their spinning blades. Yet the population of Golden Eagles in the area had stayed relatively stable over the years despite this unnatural source of mortality. The researchers considered two possibilities. First, this population of eagles may have had unusually high birth rates or unusually low death rates from other sources to compensate for the high windmill-induced mortality. Alternatively, immigrant Golden Eagles might be replacing those killed by turbines.

Altamont Pass Wind Farm

Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California. Credit: Todd Katzner.

This question has important implications for conservation biologists. If immigrant Golden Eagles are replacing those killed by windmills at APWRA, then the apparent stability of the local Golden Eagle population may be at the expense of other populations that are providing APWRA with these immigrants. So, even though APWRA’s windmills are not directly causing local eagle populations to decline, windmills at APWRA (and other windmill sites) may be indirectly leading to a decline in other populations. So Katzner and his colleagues did genetic and molecular analyses of tissues remaining from these killed eagles to learn as much as they could about these eagles and where they came from.

Golden Eagle in flight

Golden Eagle in flight. Credit: Michael J. Lanzone.

The researchers used tissue samples from 67 eagles that were killed at APWRA between 2012-2014. They subjected these tissues to a variety of genetic tests to determine the sex and age of each individual, and to evaluate the genetic differences between individuals killed by the windmills.

In addition, Katzner and his colleagues used stable isotope analysis to evaluate whether the killed individuals were local birds, or immigrants from afar. For this analysis the stable isotope ratio is the ratio of a rare and nonradioactive isotope of hydrogen (2H) found in the sample (feathers of killed birds) in relation to the common isotope (1H). A feather’s stable isotope ratio is very tightly correlated to the stable isotope ratio of the water the bird drinks. The last important point is that different regions of the world have different characteristic stable isotope ratios in rainwater. So if you can determine the stable isotope ratio of a bird’s feather, you can compare it to the world stable isotope ratio map, and determine where the bird most likely spent the previous year (once birds molt, their new feathers assume the stable isotope ratio of their new location). This approach will underestimate the number of immigrants, because some distant locales have a similar stable isotope ratio as APWRA, and birds from those regions will be incorrectly scored as being local.

Stable isotope map

Map of May-August stable isotope ratios (of 2H in rainwater).  Same colors represent similar stable isotope ratios, ranging from relatively high ratios (deep orange), to relatively low ratios (dark blue). I don’t discuss the meaning of the circles and triangles in this blog post.

Based on this analysis, more than 25% of the dead eagles were immigrants to the area, with some birds originating from more than 800 km away. The researchers point out that APWRA might be particularly attractive to eagles looking for a home because it provides two types of resources that are important to these birds – visually open feeding grounds with easily-located prey, and a consistent updraft to facilitate relatively effortless flight.

Fig 3a

Probability that an eagle killed at APWRA was local.  If the probability was less than 0.5 the researchers scored it as immigrant; if greater than 0.5 the researchers scored it as local.

About half of the immigrants that could be sexed were juveniles or subadults. The researchers argue that the apparent stability of the population in the APWRA region is achieved by young immigrants replacing those birds that are killed by windmills.


Percentage of local vs. immigrant (nonlocal) Golden Eagles by age.

Katzner and his colleagues are concerned that APWRA functions as an ecological sink that attracts eagles, primarily from nearby western states, to replace those killed by windmills. High death rates are particularly problematic to slow-growing populations, such as Golden Eagles, which usually lay only two eggs, with generally only one surviving chick per breeding season (the larger chick often kills its sibling). The researchers also point out that windmills also kill many other animals, including numerous bat species, which also have slow-growing populations. They encourage the renewable-energy industry to develop technology that will reduce windmill-induced death. Such efforts are already underway, and there is preliminary evidence that newer generation turbines are reducing Golden Eagle mortality rates.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Katzner, T.E., Nelson, D.M., Braham, M.A., Doyle, J.M., Fernandez, N.B., Duerr, A.E., Bloom, P.H., Fitzpatrick, M.C., Miller, T.A., Culver, R.C. and Braswell, L., 2017. Golden Eagle fatalities and the continental‐scale consequences of local wind‐energy generation. Conservation Biology31(2): 406-415.Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.

Scientists MARCH against MADNESS (in April)

Back in my formative college years, my friends and I would indulge in many spontaneous gatherings, in which the question of “What is reality” occupied the stage front and center. As consummate dabblers in multiplistic world views, we considered all conceivable answers, and chose none. But time shuffled on, and so did we, to new adventures in which the reality problem no longer seemed so central, nor so puzzling. We recognized that reality is observable, but that your senses might betray you sometimes. That seemed like enough.

Going back a bit before my formative college years, Copernicus upset this sensory world view by publishing (almost on his deathbed) “De Revolutionibus”, which proposed, and gave some evidence for the hypothesis that Earth revolved around a fixed sun (heliocentrism). Originally this provocative alternative was mostly ignored, but many years later it raised some serious issues (particularly for Galileo) as it became more seriously considered. One major objection was that the reality imparted by our senses told us that the world was standing still – otherwise would we not be blown away by a world that was racing around a sun (and rotating at a frenzied pace to boot)? A second major objection was that the consensus of scientists at the time believed that that the world was standing still and occupied the central position. A third major objection was that a heliocentric world view, if taken literally, seemed at odds with some parts of the Bible, in particular when Joshua asked the sun to stand still so the Israelites had more time to deal with the Gibeonites.

geocentric universe

Figure of the heavenly bodies – An illustration of the Ptolemeic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris)

The reality of our senses is a powerful argument. Copernicus, Galileo and scientists to follow would need to come up with a great deal of physical evidence to sway humanity from the commonsense observation that Earth is still. They did so with astronomical observations (aided by the invention of the telescope) and by developing theories of inertia, momentum and gravity, which propelled our understanding of universal laws for many different applications. As the scientific evidence became more compelling, scientific consensus shifted, and now most people accept the Sun as the center of the solar system, with Earth as one of eight (or nine) orbiting planets, even though these people (including many scientists) don’t understand the physics or the underlying mathematics. Lastly, even fundamentalist Christians and Jews can now argue that Joshua was simply using the language of his time when he issued his request to the Sun.

Advancing in time to 1896, Svante Arrhenius published a paper that proposed that atmospheric CO2 levels could influence atmospheric temperatures in ways that are now familiar to us. Like Copernicus before him, Arrhenius’ ideas were initially rejected by most scientists, until new technology was applied to measuring atmospheric CO2 levels, and to developing models of how the atmosphere and climate interacted. Ultimately, these new approaches led to the development of a scientific consensus that climate is changing, that Earth’s surface is warming, and that human behavior is responsible. Over the past 60 years we have measured the changes, we have developed a more coherent scientific understanding of atmospheric processes, we have made mathematical models that generate projections and we have validated these models empirically. Unlike Copernicus and Galileo, we can observe climate change using the reality imparted by our senses (either online, in books, or by journeying to shorelines or to polar regions that are losing their cool). Unlike Copernicus and Galileo, the consensus of the scientific community is in our camp. Unlike Copernicus and Galileo, the Bible does not make any claims about climate or CO2. This reality should be a no-brainer!

But it isn’t, and I lack the omniscience to understand why this reality is being denied. One hypothesis is that the geocentric hypothesis has been replaced by the corporate-centric hypothesis, which states that corporations and their shareholders are at the center of the universe, and that financial earnings are the currency of reality. The power of this system is that these earnings, if they are maximized and judiciously applied, can be used to purchase some people’s perceptions of reality, so that their reality denies the scientific consensus. This new corporate-centric hypothesis denies scientific facts, and downgrades them with alternative facts that claim to be equally valid.

On April 22 we march across the globe to celebrate and affirm the reality of our senses, the truth of our observations, and the beauty of our complicated world. We celebrate a universe with no center, and a world with millions of different species that interact with each other and their environment in meaningful and mysterious ways. We celebrate the pursuit of rational inquiry into the processes underlying these interactions, and the deepening of our understanding of who we are as humans, and how we can, as scientists, apply real knowledge to allow our Earth to flourish.