Sushi in Disguise

As an ecology researcher, I’ve always been attracted to systems where you might be able or inclined to eat your organism after you completed your experiment or observations. Alas, I spent my research career studying spiders, dragonflies and zebrafish, all of which are high on nutrients but low on succulence. Thus I read with considerable gastronomic anticipation an article by Demian Willette and his colleagues that studied nine different species of fish served up at local sushi restaurants in Los Angeles, California.


Mackerel, salmon and tuna (front to back) served at a Los Angeles sushi restaurant. Credit Demian Willette.

One of the co-authors, Sara Simmonds, had a great idea when she was a teaching assistant for the Introduction to Marine Science course at UCLA in 2012. Simmonds suggested that students in the class could investigate whether seafood served at sushi restaurants were always what they claimed to be, or might they sometimes travel under false identities. For example, is red snapper (which does not occur in California waters) really red snapper, or might merchants substitute one of 13 rockfish species in its stead? This project allowed students to investigate a real world marine-related topic, while also getting some experience using and applying molecular genetics tools.

Over the course of the four-year study, students ordered sushi from 26 different restaurants, confirmed the species identification with the wait-staff, and collected tissue samples from each order. They then subjected the samples to DNA barcoding, which amplifies and sequences an approximately 650 base pair segment of the mitochondrial COI gene. Once they determined the DNA sequence, students then compared it with known sequences using the Basic Local Assignment Search Tool database (National Center for Biotechnology Information).

Each year, between 40 and 52% of the fish were mislabeled. Though previous studies by other researchers had identified mislabeling, Willette and his colleagues were surprised that all 26 restaurants had at least one case of mislabeling, and that the mislabeling rate was so consistent from one year to the next.


Percentage of sushi mislabelled (left y-axis – bar symbol) and number of restaurants sampled (right y-axis – diamond symbol) by year.  Number in bar is sample size for that year.

Overall substitution rates varied dramatically from one species to another. All fish species, except bluefin tuna, were mislabeled at least once, and two species – red snapper and halibut – were always mislabeled. Red snapper was often replaced with red seabream, while halibut was usually replaced with flounder.


Percentage mislabeled (+ standard error) for each species in the study. Numbers above bars are number mislabeled (left) and total sample (right).  For example 6 out of 47 salmon were mislabeled.

Why should we care if we’re served the wrong species of fish, as long as it tastes good? As it turns out, there are several reasons. About 33% of halibut are substituted with olive flounder, which can harbor the parasite Kudoa septempunctata, which is known to cause severe food poisoning. In addition, some of the other halibut substitutes are actually overfished flounder species, so substituting these for halibut is depleting already at-risk fisheries. Similar problems, in which an at-risk species substitutes for the mislabeled species, were common in tuna and yellowtail as well.

The researchers recommend that seafood mislabeling must be attacked at all stages of the seafood supply chain. All seafood should be labeled to species, place of origin, and the type of fishing practice used. Inspectors must be trained to identify seafood – perhaps using portable, hand-held DNA sequencers. Retailers should be told when they sell mislabeled species, so they can insist that their suppliers deliver the correct goods. Finally social media can be used to inform the public of consistent mislabeling, so consumers can pressure retailers to make sure that a red snapper is what it claims to be.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Willette, D. A., Simmonds, S. E., Cheng, S. H., Esteves, S., Kane, T. L., Nuetzel, H., Pilaud, N., Rachmawati, R. and Barber, P. H. (2017), Using DNA barcoding to track seafood mislabeling in Los Angeles restaurants. Conservation Biology, 31: 1076–1085. doi:10.1111/cobi.12888. 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.

Seagrass scourge: when nutrient enrichment reaches the tipping point

Sean Connell has watched as south Australia has lost vast expanses of kelp forest and seagrasses over the past years. One of the primary culprits associated with loss of seagrass meadows is excessive nutrients, particularly nitrogen, which enters the ecosystem with runoff, and causes an increase in algal epiphytes (epiphytes are small plants that grow on other plants). Epiphytes can negatively affect seagrass by blocking sunlight needed for photosynthesis, and indirectly, by increasing the rate of cellular respiration within the ecosystem, thus using up oxygen needed by seagrass for metabolic processes.


Two dolphins swim above a bed of seagrass off the south Australian coast.

Connell and his colleagues noticed that seagrass loss was often sudden; a large seagrass meadow would appear to be in good shape, and then it would abruptly disappear. They suggested that there might be a threshold effect in nutrient levels that seagrasses can tolerate; that these systems function well until a certain threshold in nutrient levels is crossed, above which there is an abrupt loss of seagrasses. They tested this hypothesis by subjecting plots of the seagrass Amphibolis antarctica to seven different concentrations of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) over a 10 month period, and monitored the abundance of epiphytes and seagrass over that timespan.

The meadows were about two km offshore from Lady Bay, Fleurieu Penninsula, Australia, in about 5 meters of water. Different amounts of nitrogen fertilizer were wrapped in nylon bags (for slow continuous release of DIN) and staked to the ocean floor. Amphibolis antarctica grows by producing new leaves at the top of each leaf cluster, but at the same time it drops old leaves. Leaf turnover, the researchers’ measure of growth, is simply new leaf production minus old leaf drop. The researchers tied on a small nylon cable at known locations on selected plants, noted how many leaves were above and below each tie at the beginning of the experiment, and recounted leaf number 10 months later. Finally, the researchers measured epiphyte growth by microscopically viewing a sample of seagrass leaves, and counting the number seagrass leaf cells that were covered by epiphytes.

Seagrass growth was relatively unaffected by all tested DIN levels.


Leaf production per day in relation to concentration of DIN.

However, leaf drop showed a strong threshold effect; leaf drop rates increased sharply between 0.13 – 0.15 mg/L of DIN.


Leaf drop per day in relation to concentration of DIN.

Putting these two graphs together, you can see (below) that leaf turnover switched from positive to negative at 0.13 – 0.15 mg/L of DIN. Negative leaf turnover translates to a sudden loss of seagrass at that threshold. At least in this system, at this location, 0.13 – 0.15 mg/L of DIN is the tipping point, beyond which the seagrass system suddenly goes into decline.


Leaf turnover per day (left y-axis and red data), and Epiphyte cover (% – right y-axis and green data), in relation to concentration of dissolved inorganic nitrogen.

The graph also shows that the tipping point coincides with an epiphyte cover of approximately 60%. It is possible that increased epiphyte cover may reduce seagrass photosynthetic rates (particularly in lower leaves), so that leaf turnover suddenly shifts into the negative zone, but the study was not designed to identify the underlying mechanism.

Seagrass meadows perform important ecosystem services, such as absorbing excess nutrients from the sediment, and providing habitat and food for a diverse group of grazers and indirectly, for their consumers. Thus seagrass conservation is vital. The danger here is that moderate levels of nutrients do not appear to have much effect on seagrass populations, but there is an abrupt shift to seagrass loss once the nutrient threshold is crossed. This makes the system very difficult to manage, because the loss occurs without warning. Australian ecologists have repeatedly failed to restore lost seagrass meadows, as simply reducing nutrient levels does not reverse the process. Thus anticipating seagrass loss before it happens is the most viable management solution for this critical ecosystem.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Connell, S. D., Fernandes, M., Burnell, O. W., Doubleday, Z. A., Griffin, K. J., Irving, A. D., Leung, J. Y.S., Owen, S., Russell, B. D. and Falkenberg, L. J. (2017), Testing for thresholds of ecosystem collapse in seagrass meadows. Conservation Biology, 31: 1196–1201. doi:10.1111/cobi.12951. 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.

Crawling with caterpillars courtesy of climate change – and ants

In the book of Exodus, Yahweh inflicts upon the Egyptians ten plagues, several of which have biological bases. Plagues two three, four and five are frogs, lice, wild animals and diseased livestock. But it is the eighth plague that is relevant to today’s tale – the locust explosion. As it turns out, insect populations have periodically exploded throughout recorded history (and no doubt before), and for many years ecologists have been trying to understand why insect populations are so variable. Rick Karban has taught a field course at Bodega Marine Reserve, California since 1985, and, as he describes “In some years, the bushes are dripping with caterpillars and in others they are very difficult to find.  The wooly bears (Platyprepia virginalis) are so conspicuous and charismatic that I couldn’t help wondering what was responsible for their large swings in abundance (they are more than 1,000 times as abundant in big years than in lean ones).”


Wooly bear caterpillar density during annual surveys conducted in march of each year.

The early stage caterpillars are most common in wet marshy habitats, but as they develop, they move to dryer upland habitats where they pupate, metamorphose into moths and mate. Young caterpillars live in leaf litter, eating vegetation and decaying organic matter.


Late instar (close to pupation) wooly bear caterpillar feeding on bush lupine. Credit Rick Karban.

Karban and his colleagues recognized that insect populations are sensitive to climate, and wondered whether climate change may be playing a role in Platyprepia population explosions. But there’s much more to climate change than global warming; for example, many areas of the world expect much more variable precipitation patterns, with more big storms and more droughts. Karban and his colleagues wanted to know whether variable precipitation might affect wooly bear populations. So they examined rainfall records between 1983 and 2016, and found that numerous heavy rainfall events (over 5 cm) in the previous year were correlated with increases in caterpillar abundance.


Change in caterpillar abundance in relation to number of heavy rainfall events (over 5 cm) during the previous year. Note the y-axis is the natural logarithm of the change in abundance.

Karban and his students explored three hypotheses for why caterpillars increased following a year with numerous heavy rainfall events. First, perhaps more rain causes more plant growth and deeper litter, providing extra food for caterpillars. Second, heavy rains may reduce the number of predacious ground-nesting ants. Lastly, heavy rains may produce deeper denser litter providing refuge from predacious ants.

The researchers tested litter as food hypothesis by comparing caterpillar growth rates during the summer, which usually has very little rainfall. They weighed individual caterpillars, placed them into cages and supplied them with litter from either wet or dry sites. After 30 days, they reweighed the caterpillars and found that all of them had lost weight, and that there were no significant differences in weight change between wet and dry sites. Thus, at least during the summer, there was no evidence that wet sites had better food for caterpillars.

Karban and his colleagues turned their attention to ants.


If ants stayed away from wet sites, that would suggest that rainy years may benefit caterpillars by reducing the number of ants in their habitat. To measure ant abundance, the researchers set out bait stations supplied with a sugar-laced cotton ball and 1 cm3 of hot dog. They discovered many more ants, and in particular, many more Formica lasioides (a fearsome caterpillar-killer) ants were recruited to dry sites than wet sites. This suggested that years with numerous rainfall events might reduce ant abundance, at least in the wet areas preferred by young caterpillars.

The researchers tested the ant predation hypotheses by caging caterpillars in plastic deli containers that had either window screen bottoms that allowed ants to enter but prevented the caterpillars from leaving, or had spun polyester bottoms that prevented ant access. At each of 12 field sites, the caterpillars were caged with litter that matched the depth and wetness of litter found at that site. All caterpillars protected from ants survived, while 40% of the unprotected caterpillars from dry sites and 23% of the unprotected caterpillars from wet sites were killed by predators. So ants are clearly fearsome predators, but more so under dry conditions.


A Formica lasioides ant subdues an early install wooly bear caterpillar within the confines of a deli box. Credit Rick Karban.

But does litter wetness help protect against predacious ants? To investigate this question, the researchers placed caterpillars in deli containers that permitted ant access. At each site, two containers were placed side-by-side; one contained a caterpillar + litter from a wet site, while the other contained a caterpillar + litter from a dry site. Both containers were completely filled with litter and left in the field for 48 hours. The researchers discovered that caterpillars were 26% more likely to avoid predation if they were in a container stuffed with litter from a wet site. This suggests that litter from wet sites acts as a refuge for caterpillars against predators.


Caterpillar survival rate in relation to litter wetness.

Unfortunately, no long-term data on ant abundance are available, so we don’t know the relationship between ant and caterpillar abundance over time. But when ants were excluded, caterpillars survived well, and when ants were present, caterpillars survived best in wet sites with deep litter. It is not clear why caterpillars survive ant predation better in wet litter. One possibility is that caterpillars are more active than ants at cooler temperatures, and may be more likely to avoid them in wet and cool conditions. A second possibility is that dry litter is structurally less complex than wet litter, and ants may be more likely to move efficiently to capture caterpillars in dry terrain.

Given the predictions for more rainfall variability in coming years, Karban and his colleagues expect caterpillar abundance to fluctuate even more dramatically from year to year. In this system, and presumably other insect populations as well, multiple factors interact to determine whether there will be a population outbreak reminiscent of Pharaoh’s experience early in recorded history.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Karban, Richard, Grof-Tisza, Patrick, and Holyoak, Marcel (2017), Wet years have more caterpillars: interacting roles of plant litter and predation by ants. Ecology, 98: 2370–2378. doi:10.1002/ecy.1917. 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.