Gone gorilla

Humans and lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) share many features, including strong social bonds among members of their group.  Lowland gorillas differ from humans in that one male (the silverback) dominates the group, which is composed of several females and their offspring. Some mature males are unable to attract females and may be consigned to a solitary existence.  The silverback male mates with females in his group, and may allow other females to join.  However, if a female joins a new group with an unweaned child, there is a high probability that the silverback will kill the child, as a way of getting the female into estrous more quickly, so that he can be the father of more future children.

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A group of gorillas ranges over the landscape. Credit: Céline Genton CNRS/University of Rennes

The Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo is home to several thousand lowland gorillas. Nelly Ménard and Pascaline Le Gouar (in affiliation with the ECOBIO laboratory CNRS/University of Rennes) have been studying two populations of these gorillas for over 20 years, and have identified and collected long-term data on 593 individuals from the two populations in their study. Working with their student, Alice Baudouin, and several other researchers, they documented that about 22% of the individuals were suffering from a yaws-like disease – an infectious skin disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum pertenue.

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A mother carries her infected infant. Credit: Ludovic Bouquier CNRS/University of Rennes

Females may disperse from their social group several times over the course of their lifetime.  Factors influencing the decision to disperse include availability of a higher quality silverback, reduction of predation, and avoiding inbreeding, resource competition and disease.  Given the prevalence and conspicuousness of yaws, the researchers suspected that these highly intelligent animals would use a variety of cues to inform them of whether they should disperse and which group they should attempt to join.  They expected that females should leave diseased silverbacks for healthy ones, that they should leave groups with numerous diseased individuals and immigrate into groups with healthy individuals, and that diseased females would be less likely to leave their group. Other factors influencing a gorilla’s decision might include group size, group age and whether she had an unweaned infant in her care.

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Silverback gorilla viewed from the mirador (observation post). Credit: Céline Genton CNRS/University of Rennes.

Because they considered so many variables, the researchers used their dataset to construct models of the probability of emigration (leaving the group) and immigration (entering a new group).  The research team categorized each breeding group based on the age of the oldest offspring: young (oldest offspring less than 4 years), juvenile (<7.5 years), mature (<11 years) and senescent (< 14 years). Female gorillas were more likely to emigrate if their group had numerous infected individuals (graph a below) and if the silverback was severely infected (graph b). They were also more likely to leave an older breeding group, perhaps understanding that the silverback would be losing effectiveness in the near future (graph c).  Lastly, females with unweaned infants were very unlikely to leave a group (graph d), presumably unwilling to accept the risk that their infant might starve or be killed if they attempted to join a new group.

GorillaFig2

Probability an adult female emigrates from her group in relation to (a) number of severely diseased individuals within her group, (b) presence of severe lesions on the silverback, (c) age of the breeding group, and (d) presence of an unweaned infant.  Dotted lines (in graph a) and bars (in graphs b, c and d) indicate 95% confidence intervals.

The research team did a similar analysis of factors associated with female gorillas immigrating into a new breeding group.

GorillaFig3

Probability an adult female immigrates into a group in relation to (a) age of group, (b) presence of severely diseased individuals, and (c) group size. Bars (in graph a and b) and dotted lines (graph c) indicate 95% confidence intervals.

 

They discovered that females were much more likely to join younger groups which had younger silverbacks (graph a).  In addition, females tended to join groups without any severely diseased individuals (graph b).  They were also attracted to smaller groups (graph c).

Based on these data, it is clear that disease strongly influences female dispersal decisions.  Females were much more likely to disperse from breeding groups with numerous infected individuals, and strongly avoided groups with more than two diseased individuals. This is not surprising, given how conspicuous these skin lesions are, particularly in the facial regions.  Contrary to expectation, female disease status (infected or not) did not influence female dispersal tendency. The researchers suggest that dispersal might not be particularly costly to the female (assuming she does not have an unweaned infant) because the home range of social groups overlap broadly so it is easy to move from one group to another, and food is also plentiful throughout the range.

Many features of a gorilla’s social environment influence its dispersal decisions. Because diseased females are as likely to disperse as healthy females, the disease pathogen may be more easily spread into previously uninfected gorilla populations.  On the other hand,  dispersing female avoidance of diseased populations has the effect of quarantining the diseased populations. The researchers hope to get a better understanding of the mechanisms of female appraisal of their social environment, so they can predict changes in the prevalence of this pathogen.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Baudouin, A., S. Gatti, F. Levrero, C. Genton, R. H. Cristescu, V. Billy, P. Motsch, J.-S. Pierre, P. Le Gouar, and N. Ménard. 2019. Disease avoidance, and breeding group age and size condition the dispersal patterns of western lowland gorilla females. Ecology 100(9): e02786. 10.1002/ecy.2786.  Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

It’s all happening at the ecotone

In an effort to make order out of the chaos of existence, scientists often resort to classifying stuff.  To make order of the natural world, ecologists classify different regions of the world into distinct biomes – large geographical areas with characteristic groups of organisms adapted to that particular environment.  Familiar examples of terrestrial biomes are tropical forests, temperate grasslands and desert, and in the aquatic world examples include open ocean, coral reefs and rivers. But what happens at ecotones, where two or more biomes come together? Research has shown that ecotones can be biodiversity hotspots, as the diverse habitats attract many different species, and may also attract edge specialists – species that are particularly adapted to conditions on the border between the two biomes.

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Sara Weinstein collects data at the ocean to land ecotone. Credit: Anand Varma.

Sara Weinstein’s graduate research explored the ecology and transmission of raccoon roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, a widespread raccoon parasite that causes severe disease in other animals (including humans).  She was dissecting raccoons to study infection patterns and as she describes “it would have been a waste of perfectly good raccoon guts to not also examine the rest of the parasite community.”  This examination would allow her to determine whether the generalization that ecotones are biodiversity hotspots for terrestrial and aquatic organisms also applies to the much more murky world of gut parasites.

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A raccoon poses next to a culvert. Credit: SB Weinstein.

Working with four other researchers, Weinstein compiled a database of published accounts of gastrointestinal parasites from surveys of 256 raccoon populations.  They then used this database to classify parasites as either core or satellite.  Core parasites are locally abundant, common over a large region and can occupy a broad ecological niche.  Satellite parasites are rare, restricted to a small portion of a region and have narrow ecological niches.

Microphallus

Microphallus sp. – a group of relatively rare satellite trematodes collected from a raccoon gut. Credit: SB Weinstein.

Weinstein and her colleagues found that the data divided raccoon gut parasites into two distinct groups.

Fig1BCWeinstein

Top graph. Parasite frequency across raccoon populations. Most parasite genera were found in less than 10% of the raccoon populations.  Dashed line indicates 30% cutoff between satellite and core genera.  Bottom graph. Proportion of raccoons infected with each parasite  in relation to range-wide prevalence.  Larger data points indicate more populations surveyed for a given parasite.

 

There were eight taxa (genera) that were found in more than 40% of raccoon populations. In contrast there were 51 genera that were found in fewer than 30% of raccoon populations, with the vast majority of these found in fewer than 10% of raccoon populations in the survey (top graph on left).  The eight common taxa – core parasites – also tended to be present in more individuals within each population than did the 51 less common genera of satellite parasites (bottom graph on left).

 

Having defined core and satellite parasites, the researchers then did a thorough analysis of the gut contents of 180 raccoon collected by trappers and animal control agents in Santa Barbara County between 2012 – 2015. They hypothesized that the prevalence of core parasites should not be overly affected by ecotones.  In contrast, satellite parasites should increase in ecotones, because ecotones provide unique environmental conditions that would be suitable to some of the less common species in the parasite community.

 

In Santa Barbara County, Weinstein and her colleagues identified four core parasites and nine satellite parasites within the population, with a mean of 2.24 parasite species per raccoon. Racoons nearer to the marine ecotone harbored more parasite species than did raccoons more distant from the marine ecotone, a result of much greater richness of satellite species (left graph below). The story was very different for the freshwater ecotone.  Overall, parasite richness was relatively constant in relation to distance from the freshwater ecotone.  There were actually fewer core parasites but more satellite parasites near the freshwater ecotone (right graph below).

Fig3Weinstein

Left graph. Total parasite richness (orange line) in relation to distance from shore.  Satellites (orange fill) increased in abundance near the shore, while core parasites (maroon line) were steady. Right graph. Total parasite richness in relation to distance from freshwater.

Why did core parasite richness decline near the freshwater ecotone?  Weinstein and her colleagues believe that diet may play an important role.  For example, the core parasites Atriotaenia procyonis and Physoloptera rara were more common in raccoons far from freshwater, probably because racoons are infected by these two parasites as a result of eating terrestrial (but not aquatic) insect species that are intermediate hosts for these two parasite species.  As it turns out, these intermediate insect hosts prefer upland habitats that tend to be located relatively distant from the freshwater ecotone.

Increased abundance of rare parasites at ecotones has important implications for human health.  Several emerging infectious diseases, such as lyme disease, yellow fever and Nipoh virus are associated with ecotones. Habitat development by the expanding human population is causing increased habitat fragmentation, creating more ecotones, and potentially increasing the prevalence of these and other, equally unfriendly, parasites.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Weinstein, S. B., J. C. Van Wert, M. Kinsella, V. V. Tkach, and K. D. Lafferty. 2019. Infection at an ecotone: cross-system foraging increases satellite parasites but decreases core parasites in raccoons. Ecology 100(9):e02808. 10.1002/ecy.2808.  Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

 

Forest canopy fixes nitrogen shortage

The two billion hectares of forest canopy remaining on our planet are ideal habitat for nitrogen fixing microorganisms that can convert N2 to ammonia.

StantonCanopy

View of the forest canopy at the research site. Credit: D. Stanton.

The forest canopy tends to be nutrient-poor because there is no access to nutrients that accumulate in the soils on the forest floor, and rainfall can leach away any nutrients that do accumulate in the canopy from atmospheric deposition. So if you are a microbe, and you want to enjoy the view from the canopy, it is to your advantage to be able to fix atmospheric nitrogen so you can build essential molecules such as proteins and ATP.

As I mentioned in a previous post (Nitrogen continues to confound convention) both phosphorus (P) and molybdenum (Mo) are essential nutrients for biological nitrogen fixation.  Daniel Stanton and his colleagues hypothesized that nitrogen fixation in the canopy might be limited by the availability of P and Mo, so they designed a series of experiments to explore the role of these nutrients at the San Lorenzo Canopy Crane in San Lorenzo National Park in the Republic of Panama.  The crane provides about 1 ha of canopy access to non-acrophobic ecologists.

Stantoncrane

The crane at the research site: Credit: D. Stanton.

In one experiment, Stanton and his colleagues filled thin nylon stockings with vermiculite to form 40 cm long cylinders of 4 cm diameter.  Each cylinder was then soaked in either pure water (control), a molybdenum (Mo) compound, a phosphorus (P) compound, or a combination of Mo and P,  thus establishing four treatments. They attached each of these stockings to five different trees and allowed them to reside in the canopy for six months, to be colonized by microorganisms.

Stantonstockings

Nylon stockings treated with nutrients (or untreated controls) and affixed to branches in the canopy. Credit: D. Stanton.

The researchers measured the rate of nitrogen fixation by cutting a 50 cm2 rectangle from the area of densest growth on each stocking, and incubating it (along with the colonizing microorganisms) in a closed bottle that they had inoculated with heavy nitrogen (15N).  They then measured how much 15N the colonizers took up during a 12 hr incubation period.

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Samples incubating for 12 hr to measure the rate of nitrogen fixation. Credit: D. Stanton.

The most common colonizers were nitrogen fixing filamentous cyanobacteria. These cyanobacteria fixed nitrogen at a somewhat (but not statistically significant) higher rate with Mo addition and at a much higher rate with P addition, and even more so with Mo + P addition.

StantonFig1A

Nitrogen fixation rates for each experimental treatment. C = control.  Note that the y-axis is logarithmic, so these differences in fixation rates are substantial.  Non-overlapping lowercase letters above the bars indicate significant differences between the means.

Nitrogen fixation is complex and costly.  Part of the complexity arises because nitrogenase, the enzyme that catalyzes the reaction, cannot tolerate oxygen.  To deal with this problem, cyanobacteria have evolved heterocysts, which are specialized anaerobic cells where nitrogen fixation occurs.  How does nutrient addition influence heterocyst abundance and function?

There are actually two aspects to this story.  One finding is that Mo addition had no effect on heterocyst abundance, while P addition had a pronounced effect.

StantonFig1B

Heterocyst frequency for each experimental treatment.

A second aspect is that Mo addition had a pronounced effect on the efficiency of nitrogen fixation.  For one analysis the researchers compared the nitrogen fixation rate per heterocyst for the phosphorus addition treatments either without or with Mo addition (in other words, they compared the P added treatment to the Mo + P treatment). Nitrogen fixation rates were much higher in the Mo + P treatments.  So while Mo does not increase heterocyst abundance, it does dramatically increase heterocyst fixation efficiency.

StantonFig2B

Quantity of N fixed per heterocyst per day in relation to absence (left bar) or presence (right bar) of Mo.  P was added for both treatments.  Dark horizontal lines are the median values, quartile range is represented by top and bottom of each box, and the whiskers represent the range of values for each treatment.

Phosphorus acts by markedly increasing the overall cyanobacterial growth.  It increases the amount of cyanobacteria that colonizes the canopy and also increases heterocyst density per filament. In contrast molybdenum’s effect is more nuanced as it increases the efficiency of the nitrogen fixation reaction without having any (obvious) effect on cyanobacterial structure.

How do these findings influence our understanding of tropical forests in the western hemisphere?  It turns out that episodes of nutrient addition actually happen in nature, courtesy of vast plumes of nutrient-rich rock-derived dust that periodically blow over the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara desert in western Africa. Preliminary estimates by Stanton and his colleagues indicate that nutrient enrichment from these dust plumes is sufficient to  profoundly increase the rates of nitrogen fixation in tropical forests.  This may require us to reconsider our understanding of how nitrogen cycles within and between ecosystems.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Stanton, D. E., S. A. Batterman, J. C. Von Fischer, and L. O. Hedin. 2019. Rapid nitrogen fixation by canopy microbiome in tropical forest determined by both phosphorus and molybdenum. Ecology 100(9):e02795. 10.1002/ecy.2795. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Nitrogen continues to confound convention

Ah nitrogen…  It is the most abundant molecule in the air that we breathe (close to 80%), yet plants always seem to be starving for it.  Annually, nitrogen fertilizers are a $75 billion dollar industry. The problem is that the nitrogen gas that we breathe (N2) is very nonreactive, because the two nitrogen atoms are held together by a massively powerful triple bond.  So N2 must be broken down to some other more usable form (such as ammonia) – a process we call nitrogen fixation.  Most nitrogen fixers are microorganisms that live in soils or symbiotically within plants.  Unfortunately, N-fixation is energetically very costly, so even organisms that can fix nitrogen will generally happily use nitrogen compounds from the soil or leaf litter (the layer of fallen leaves above the soil) if they are available, rather than expending enormous energy to fix it for themselves. The general formula for nitrogen fixation (ignoring protons, electrons and energy transfers) is…

DynarskiEquation

A few years ago Scott Morford, Benjamin Houlton and Randy Dahlgren (the first two are co-authors of the present study) stunned the ecological world by identifying a previously unsuspected source of nitrogen – weathering of bedrock such as the mica schist pictured below. This bedrock was formed from seabeds which were rich in organic matter and had a high concentration of nitrogen compounds When the rock breaks down, both carbon and nitrogen compounds leach into the soil. Katherine Dynarski became interested in nitrogen fixation as an undergrad at Villanova University, so it was natural for her to move to the University of California at Davis to begin her graduate work with Morford and Houlton on how nitrogen cycles through ecosystems.

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Nitrogen-rich mica schist bedrock. Credit: Katherine Dynarski.

Dynarski got involved in this specific project essentially by accident. She was helping a fellow graduate student collect rocks at adjacent forests on contrasting bedrock (one high-N mica schist, and one low-N basalt), and figured that while she was out there, she might as well measure some N-fixation rates. In leaf litter and the soil below, most N-fixation is done by free-living soil bacteria. Dynarski expected higher N-fixation rates in the litter collected above the N-poor bedrock, reasoning that the microorganisms would need to fix nitrogen from the air, because there was little present in the litter.  In contrast, she expected to find lower N-fixation rates in litter collected above the N-rich bedrock, reasoning that the micro-organisms could save considerable energy by using existing nitrogen that had leached into the soil and leaf litter layer. She was shocked when she ran the samples and found exactly the opposite of her expectation, which led her to develop a more substantial project looking at the relationship between bedrock and N fixing microbes.

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Katherine Dynarski conducting gas incubations to measure N-fixation rates in the field. Credit: Scott Mitchell.

Working in northern California and Western Oregon, Dynarski and her colleagues identified sites whose bedrock was low in nitrogen (below 500 parts per million N) or high in nitrogen (above 500 ppm N). The researchers used soil and leaf litter samples from 14 paired sites – high N bedrock with nearby low N bedrock. They analyzed soil and leaf litter samples from each plot for concentration of nitrogen, carbon (C), phosphorus (P) and molybdenum (Mo) – the latter two elements have been shown in other systems to limit the rate of N-fixation.  The researchers also collected samples of underlying bedrock and analyzed N and Mo content of these rocks.

Recall that the conventional paradigm is that microorganisms should have lower N-fixation rates in N-rich environments.  There was negligible N-fixation occurring in the soil, but considerable N-fixation in the leaf litter above.  Thus the conventional prediction was that N-fixation rates would be higher in leaf litter above low-N bedrock. As I mentioned previously, Dynarski found the exact opposite to be true in one site; would this unconventional finding be confirmed by the 14 sites explored in this study?

The answer is yes!  Considerably more N-fixation was detected in leaf litter above high N bedrock than in leaf litter above low N bedrock.

DynarskiFig3

Mean leaf litter N-fixation rates and low-N and High_N bedrock sites.  Error bars are one standard deviation. P = 0.014.

You will notice the large error bars above the graph.  As it turns out, N-fixation rates vary dramatically – even on a very small spatial scale, which is why the researchers took multiple samples from each site. Some sample sites (hotspots) have unusually high rates of N-fixation.  These hotspots are also strongly correlated with high carbon concentration, with greater C in the leaf litter associated with much higher rates of N-fixation.

DynarskiFig4

Litter N-fixation rates in relation to % soil carbon at N-fixation hotspots. Hotspots are defined as having fixation rates greater than 1 kg N per hectare per year.

Dynarski and her colleagues also discovered that, in general, leaf litter above high-N bedrock tended to have more C and P than did leaf litter above low-N bedrock.  Given this finding (along with the hotspot finding) we are now ready to explore the question of why microbes are expending more energy to fix nitrogen in regions where more nitrogen is naturally available.

The researchers considered two hypotheses.  First, it takes N to make N.  N-fixation is catalyzed by N-rich enzymes. It may be that leaf litter above low-N bedrock is too N-poor to provide microbes with enough nitrogen make these enzymes. So the additional nitrogen from high-N bedrock is just enough to allow microbes to produce the N-fixation enzymes.

The second hypothesis is that the litter above low-N bedrock is also low in C, P and Mo, all of which are required for N-fixation. Thus the positive effect of these nutrients overwhelms the negative effect of additional nitrogen on the rate of nitrogen fixation.  According to this hypothesis, the conventional paradigm of high nitrogen availability reducing the rate of N-fixation is correct, but other factors may be equally or more important in natural ecosystems.

Fortunately, this conundrum is easily resolved.  Dynarski and her colleagues took some leaf litter samples and added a small amount of nitrogen to them.  These N-additions significantly reduced N-fixation rates at both low and high bedrock N sites.  Thus environmental N does reduce biological N-fixation, but other factors, such as the availability of other essential nutrients, can overwhelm the inhibitory effect of environmental nitrogen in natural ecosystems

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A Douglas fir forest in the Oregon Coast Range, where some of this research was conducted.  Credit: Katherine Dynarski.

The researchers conclude that nitrogen input from bedrock weathering leads to increased C storage and P retention, ultimately enhancing rates of N-fixation. About 75% of Earth’s surface is underlain by rocks with substantial N reservoirs, so we need to continue exploring the effects of weathering bedrock on ecosystem processes and functioning.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Dynarski, K. A., S. L. Morford, S. A. Mitchell, and B. Z. Houlton. 2019. Bedrock nitrogen weathering stimulates biological nitrogen fixation. Ecology 100(8):e02741. 10.1002/ ecy.2741. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Tropical trophic cascade slows decomposers

In the rough and tumble natural world, consumers such as lions, lady bugs, llamas and lizards get most of the press, while producers such as peas, pumpkins and phytoplankton come in a close second.  Consumers earn their name because they get their energy from consuming other organisms, while producers produce their own energy (using photosynthesis or chemosynthesis) from inorganic molecules.  Often ignored in this ecosystem structural scheme are decomposers, which get their energy from breaking down the tissue of dead organisms.  They should not be ignored.  Much of the energy transferred through ecosystems passes through decomposers.

One reason they are overlooked is that most decomposers are tiny. Some of the largest decomposers are detritivores, which actually eat the dead materials (detritus), in contrast to other microbial decomposers such as bacteria and fungi.  Shredders are detritivores commonly found in streams and rivers; these aquatic insects eat portions of dead leaves and, in the process, shred them into much smaller pieces that energize other decomposers. Many researchers had noted that shredders were relatively rare in tropical streams, in part because there are many other larger consumers in the ecosystem that are willing to eat dead leaves and any shredders associated with them. Thus Troy Simon and his colleagues expected that shredders, such as the caddisfly, Phylloicus hansoni, would play, at best, a minor role in the streams they studied in the Northern Range Mountains in Trinidad.

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A typical headwater stream located in the Northern Range mountains of Trinidad. Waterfalls in the uppermost reaches of these streams act as a barrier to the upstream movement of guppies, but not killifish and crabs, which can move over land during periods of heavy rain. Credit: Joshua Goldberg.

We will discuss interactions between several species in these aquatic systems.  Trees are important producers as they shed leaves into the streams; these leaves are broken down by shredders such as the aforementioned caddisflies and also microbial decomposers.   The major consumers are omnivorous crabs, Eudaniela garmani, which eat leaves and caddisflies (and many other items), and two fish species. Killifish, Anablepsoides hartii, eat caddisflies, other invertebrates and also the occasional small fish (including fish eggs).

killifish

Hart’s killifish (Anablepsoides hartii) are primarily insectivorous and major consumers of leaf‐shredding caddisflies. Credit: Pierson Hill.

Guppies, Poecilia reticulata, are much smaller than killifish, maxing out at 32 mm long in comparison to the killifish maximum length of 100 mm.  But guppies are much more omnivorous, feeding on leaves, leaf-shredding insects and even killifish eggs and larvae.

guppies

Male (left) and female (right) Trinidadian guppy (Poecilia reticulata). Guppies are omnivorous, feeding broadly on detritus as well as plant and animal prey, including young killifish. Credit: Pierson Hill.

Amazingly, killifish can disperse over land, as can crabs (less amazingly).  This allows them to bypass barrier waterfalls during wet periods, which results in them being the only large consumer species above waterfalls in many Trinidad streams.  Guppies lack killifish dispersal abilities, so they are often confined to stream reaches below significant waterfalls.  These species, and their consumption patterns are highlighted in the figure below.

SimonFig1

Diagram of the two detrital-based food webs.  Above the waterfall is the KC reach, named after its two important consumers, killifish and crabs.  Below the waterfalls is the KCG reach, named after its three important consumers, killifish, crabs and guppies. Arrows show direction of energy flow within the ecosystem.

Simon and his colleagues wanted to know how interactions among all of these species influenced the rate of leaf decomposition.  The researchers constructed identical-size leaf packs of recently fallen leaves of the Guarumo tree, Cercropia peltata, and attached them to copper wire frames within each reach of the stream.  They periodically harvested a subset of the packs and measured the amount of decomposition by drying and weighing the leaves, and comparing this weight to the starting weight of the leaf pack.  In addition, they collected all invertebrates > 1 mm long from each leaf pack and identified them to species or genus.

To control the consumers involved in each interaction, Simon and his colleagues constructed underwater electric exclosures which created an electric field that convinced all fish and crabs to exit (and stay out) within 30 seconds of being turned on, but did not influence invertebrates in any detectable way.  Killifish are active day and night, guppies only during the day, and the researchers believed that crabs were active primarily at night. The researchers set up four treatments: control (C) with 24 hour access to consumers, experimental (E) with 24 hour exclusion of consumers, day-only exclusion (D) and night-only exclusion (N).  The researchers expected that the day-only exclusion treatments would selectively exclude guppies, while night-only exclusion would selectively exclude crabs. They then placed the leaf packs into each exclosure, turned on the current, and ran the experiment for 29 days.  Five replicates of each treatment were done above and below the waterfalls.

simonexperiment

Electric exclosures established in the stream. Leaf packs were tied to the copper frame and periodically harvested over the 29 days of the experiment. Rectangular tiles shown in treatment frames were part of a separate study. Credit: Troy N. Simon.

We’re finally ready for some data.  The two graphs on the left represent the downstream reach below the waterfalls, where killifish, crabs and guppies are naturally present (KCG).  The two graphs on the right represent the upstream reach above the falls, where only killifish and crabs are naturally present.  There was no evidence in the downstream reach that excluding consumers influenced decomposition rates (top left graph).  However, when consumers were present (C treatment) in the upstream reach, decomposition rates were reduced by about 40% in comparison to treatments when consumers were partially (D and N) or completely (E) excluded (top right graph).

SimonFig3

Mean (+SE) for (a,b) decay rate of Cecropia peltata leaves (percentage of mass lost per day) and (c,d)  biomass of Phylloicus hansoni (milligrams of dry mass per gram of Cecropia). 24-hour treatments allow full macroconsumer access [control (C)] or completely exclude macroconsumers [electric (E)]. Twelve-hour treatments exclude access to either diurnally active [day (D)] or nocturnally active [night (N)] macroconsumers. Different letters above the bars indicate statistically significant differences between the treatments.

The two bottom graphs above look at the biomass of the caddisfly, Phylloicus hansoni, which was easily the most abundant macroinvertebrate within the leaf packs.  There was no significant difference in caddisfly abundance below the waterfall regardless of treatment (bottom left graph above).  Above the waterfalls, caddisfly abundance was severely depressed in the controls (C) where killifish were free to feed on them (bottom right graph).

One piece of evidence that killifish ate caddisflies and depressed their abundance was that surviving caddisflies were much smaller in the control treatment leaf packs than in any of the experimental treatment leaf packs.  This suggests that  killifish with unimpeded access to caddisflies were picking off the largest individuals.

SimonFig4

Mean (+SE) caddisfly length in mm (y-axis) for each treatment, 

These findings support the hypothesis that a trophic cascade prevails in the KC reach, in which killifish eat caddisflies, thereby slowing down decomposition. But in the KCG reach, guppies eat killifish eggs and larvae and compete with them for resources, thereby reducing killifish abundance, and interfering with the establishment of a trophic cascade.

Lastly, the researchers explored whether the same trophic cascade operated in upper reaches but not in lower reaches of other streams in the area. Surveys of six streams indicate a definite “yes” answer, with Cecropia decay rate and caddisfly biomass much lower in the upper reaches.

SimonFig6

(Top) Mean (+SE) decay rate for Cecropia peltata
leaves (percentage of mass lost per day) and (b) caddisfly biomass (milligrams of dry mass per gram of Cecropia) in the landscape study (n = 6 streams). Different letters above bars indicate statistically significant differences  between treatments.

Surveys of each stream indicated that killifish were much more abundant in the upper reaches where guppies were not found, but guppies were much more prevalent in the lower reaches than were killifish.  These findings indicate that this detrital-based trophic cascade, with killifish eating caddisflies and thereby slowing down decomposition, is a general pattern in the upper reaches of these tropical streams.  However, Simon and his colleagues caution us that different streams will have different groups of organisms playing different ecological roles.  Thus the presence of detrital-based trophic cascades will depend on the particulars of which species are present and how abundant they are in a particular stream.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Simon, T. N., A. J. Binderup, A. S. Flecker, J. F. Gilliam, M. C. Marshall, S. A. Thomas, J. Travis, D. N. Reznick, and C. M. Pringle. 2019. Landscape patterns in top-down control of decomposition: omnivory disrupts a tropical detrital-based trophic cascade. Ecology 100(7):e02723. 10.1002/ecy.2723. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

 

Hot ants defend plants from elephants

I’ve lost a lot of sleep over ants.  As a spider researcher, I often placed ants on spiderwebs to lure my spiders out of their underground retreats and onto their webs. The problem was that these harvester ants (Pogonmyrmex species) were fierce, so to minimize damage to myself, I was forced to capture them in the very early morning, when they and (alas) I were very sluggish.

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Swollen thorn (domatia) that serves as living quarters for acacia ants. Credit: T. Palmer.

Todd Palmer has worked with ants for many years, including research on ant-plant mutualisms in which acacia trees provide domatia (swollen thorns) as ant living quarters and extrafloral nectaries as ant food, while ants provide protection from herbivores such as elephants, kudus and steenboks.

Similar to my efforts with ants and spiders, Palmer wanted to reduce ant-induced damage to himself and his colleagues, so he often took advantage of early morning ant sluggishness for purposes of manipulating acacia trees. On the other hand, if he wanted to study aggressive responses, he learned that mid-day was best. Recognizing the daily patterns of ant activity got Palmer, Ryan Tamashiro (Palmer’s undergraduate research student) and Patrick Milligan (Palmer’s graduate student) thinking about how these different levels of activity would influence herbivores, many of which tend to be most active during dawn and dusk when temperatures are low and ants are relatively sluggish.

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Elephants are major herbivores that can cause enormous damage to acacia trees. Credit: T. Palmer.

Four species of ants live in domatia on branches of Acacia drepanolobium, the dominant tree species at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya.

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A grove of Acacia drepanolobium. Credit: T. Palmer.

In order of relative abundance, the ant species are Crematogaster mimosae (52%), C. sjostedti (18%), Tetraponera penzigi (16%) and C. nigriceps (15%).  Previous research showed that C. mimosae and C. nigriceps are the two most effective acacia defenders.

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Crematogaster nigriceps on an acacia tree. Credit: T. Palmer.

Ants are poikilotherms, whose body temperature, and presumably their activity levels, fluctuate with environmental temperature.  As these ants live in acacia branches, the first order of business became to determine how branch temperature fluctuated with time of day during the 21 days of data collection.  Not surprisingly, branch temperature peaked at mid-day, and was lowest at dawn and dusk (temperatures were not measured during the night).

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Variation in branch surface temperature with time of day. Horizontal bars are median values; boxes are first and third quartiles.

Tamashiro, Milligan and Palmer next asked how ant activity level related to branch temperature.  Different ant species don’t get along so well, so each tree hosted only one ant species.  For each tree surveyed, the researchers counted the number of ants that passed over a 5 cm branch segment during a 30 second time period (they did this twice for each tree),  The researchers discovered a strong correlation between branch surface temperature and baseline ant activity, with C. mimosae and C. nigriceps showing greatest activity levels at all temperatures, which increased sharply at higher temperatures.

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Ant activity levels in relation to branch surface temperature. Shaded areas are 95% confidence intervals for each species.

Do higher temperatures cause a stronger aggressive response to predators or other disturbances? Tamashiro and his colleagues tested this by rapidly sliding a gloved hand over a 15 cm segment of a branch three times and then resting the gloved hand on the branch for 30 s.  They then removed the glove and counted the number of ants that had swarmed onto the glove.  Again, C. mimosae and C. nigriceps showed the strongest aggressive response, which increased sharply with temperature

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Aggressive swarming by ants in relation to branch surface temperature. Shaded areas are 95% confidence intervals for each species.

While a gloved hand is a nice surrogate for predators, the researchers wanted to know how the ants would respond to a real predator, and whether the response was temperature dependent.  At the same time, they wanted to determine whether the predator would change its behavior in response to changes in ant defensive behavior at different temperatures.  They used eight somali goats (Capra aegagrus hircus) as their predators, and C. mimosae as the focal ant species for these trials.

Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald, USMC - United States Department of Defense

Somali goats in Ali Sabieh, Djibouti. Credit: Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald, USMC – United States Department of Defense.

The researchers chose eight trees of similar size for their experiment, and removed ants from four of the trees by spraying them with a short-lived insecticide, and preventing ant recolonization by spreading a layer of ultra-sticky solution (Tanglefoot) around the based of each treated tree.  Goats were allowed to feed for five minutes.

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Number of bites (top graph) and time spent feeding (bottom graph) by goats in relation to branch surface temperature. Shaded area is 95% confidence interval.

Tamashiro and his colleagues measured the number of bites taken (top graph) and the amount of time spent feeding (bottom graph) at different branch temperatures.  Both measures of goat feeding were not influenced by branch temperature if there were no ants on the trees (blue lines and points).  But if ants were present (red lines and points), goat feeding decreased sharply with increasing branch temperature, presumably reflecting more aggressive ant defense of the plants.

These findings have important implications for acacia trees, which are a critical species in the sub-Saharan ecosystem.  Previous research has shown that elephant damage is strongly influenced by the number of swarming ants on a particular tree; a greater number of swarming ants are associated with less elephant damage. Many vertebrate browsers feed throughout the day, but may feed preferentially at dawn and dusk, when temperatures are cooler and ant-defense is weakest. Browsing is particularly problematic for acacia saplings, which are usually attacked by small-bodied vertebrates such as steenbok, which forage primarily at night when ants are least active.  Thus the effectiveness of ant defense may be compromised by mismatches between vertebrate activity periods and ant activity periods.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Tamashiro, R. A., P. D. Milligan, and T. M. Palmer. 2019. Left out in the cold: temperature-dependence of defense in an African ant–plant mutualism. Ecology 100(6): e02712. 10.1002/ecy.2712 . Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

 

 

Vacation’s changing tides

Cindy and I and our dog (Cheyanne) recently returned from a two+ week vacation at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  We stayed in Avon, which is about eight miles north of the iconic Cape Hatteras lighthouse in a large house with a great ocean view.  We got a large house, because we thought our kids might join us, but it turns out that one disadvantage of kids getting older is that their lives become more complex.  Anyhow, several friends stayed with us for a few days, and a grand time was had by all.

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Cheyanne and I ponder the ocean’s vastness. Credit: Cindy Miller

But the point of this post is the trip home.  On Friday, we packed everything into our car, including Cheyanne, and began the eight-hour drive back to our home in Radford, VA.  At Rodanthe (about 15 miles north), traffic just stopped.  We sat in our car for a few minutes, disembarked, and spoke with many people walking by, who told us that the road (NC12) was flooded and covered with sand.  We had heard rumors of flooding, but since the sun was out and the wind relatively calm, we assumed that was all in the past.  Apparently the flooding was so bad that a motor home and the boat it was towing got totally caught up in the sand and water, and was wedged so efficiently that they could not even be towed out until serious excavation happened. That was not going to happen until Saturday.

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Moving the dunes off of the road. Credit: Cindy Miller.

Saturday at 6 PM we got the call that the road was open and we could head home.  We repacked the car, re-experienced Cheyanne’s baleful look, and set out, with an ETA of 3 AM at the earliest.  Alas the high tide came in, water breached the dunes, and a very kind police officer knocked on our window, imploring us to return to Avon and wait for a better day.  Cheyanne gave him a baleful look, but we obeyed.

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Reconstituted dunes.  Notice the tire tracks left by earth-moving machines. Credit: Cindy Miller.

The next morning we set out again; by now we could pack a car in just a few minutes.  Our peanut butter on toast dinner of the previous night had left us a bit peckish, so we stopped off for some pastries and cappuccinos. We headed north once again and this time we were able to pass through the Rodanthe flood, and several others along the way.  The water level was high, but our car had good ground clearance and our escape was relatively uneventful, but done at sub-breakneck speed.

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Riding away through Rodanthe’s rising tides. Credit: Cindy Miller.

 

Why was this happening?  The weather was beautiful – no rain, no wind and sunny skies.  It just doesn’t get any nicer than this at the Outer Banks.  As it turns out, there were two provocateurs.  First, there was subtropical storm Melissa several hundred miles to our east, passing harmlessly out to sea, but increasing sea levels.  Second, there was almost a full moon, which also tends to increase sea levels.  But that’s it!

That shouldn’t be enough.  In past years those two events might cause waves to crash to the dunes with increased vigor, but would not cause them to breach the dunes and spill onto the roads.  But those were past years, and now is the present, and sea levels along the North Carolina coast have risen by about one foot in the past 50 years.  Here are some data from Wilmington, NC – about 150 miles south of Avon.

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Rising sea levels measured at Wilmington, North Carolina. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and SeaLevelRise.org

You should note two things.  First, there is substantial year-to-year variation in sea levels. Second, rates of sea level rise are accelerating.  Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Army Corps of Engineers expect this trend to continue.  Here is the prognosticated change in sea levels between now and 2050 at Oregon Inlet (just a few miles north of Rodanthe).

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Forecast sea level change between 2016 and 2050. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and SeaLevelRise.org

This is very bad.  I’ve been vacationing at the Outer Banks for about 25 years; it has become a part of who I am.  I don’t want to give up on this spectacular part of the world, but we must act.  We cannot continue sticking our heads in the sand (which we can now oftentimes find on NC12), pretending that climate change is a construct of the liberal press or elite intelligentsia.

The first step in dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it exists. Climate change is here, and its impact is increasing. An estimated 50 million climate change refugees around the globe are being forced to abandon their homes. More will follow, including our neighbors from North Carolina’s Outer Banks. For their sake, and ours, let’s acknowledge the problem, and focus our resources, energies and talents to reducing the damage in the short term, and dealing with the causes of climate change over the next decades and centuries.