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.

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.


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.

Dinoflagellates deter copepod consumption

Those of us who enjoy eating seafood are dismayed by the dreaded red tide, which renders some of our favorite prey toxic to us.  A red tide occurs when dinoflagellates and other algae increase sharply in abundance, often in response to upwelling of nutrients from the ocean floor.  Many of these dinoflagellates are red or brownish-red in color, so large numbers of them floating on or near the surface give the ocean its characteristic red color. These dinoflagellates produce toxic compounds (in particular neurotoxins) that pass through the food web, ultimately contaminating fish, molluscs and many other groups of species.


Red tide at Isahaya Bay, Japan.  Credit: Marufish/Flickr.

Did toxicity arise in dinoflagellates to protect them from being eaten by predators – in particular by voracious copepods?  The problem with this hypothesis is that copepods eat an entire dinoflagellate.  Let’s imagine a dinoflagellate with a mutation that produces a toxic substance. At some point the dinoflagellate gets eaten, and the poor copepod consumer is exposed to the toxin.  Maybe it dies and maybe it lives, but the important result is that the dinoflagellate dies, and its mutant genes are gone forever, along with the toxic trait. The only way toxicity will benefit the dinoflagellate individual, and thus spread throughout the dinoflagellate population, is if it increases the survival/reproductive success of individuals with the toxic trait. This can occur if copepods have some mechanism for detecting toxic dinoflagellates, and are therefore less likely to eat them.

Jiayi Xu and Thomas Kiørboe went looking for such a mechanism using 13 different species or strains of dinoflagellates that were presented to the copepod Temora longicornis. This copepod beats its legs to create an ocean current that moves water, and presumably dinoflagellates, in its direction, which it then eats.  For their experiment, the researchers glued a hair to the dorsal surface of an individual copepod (very carefully), and they then attached the other side of the hair to a capillary tube, which was controlled by a micromanipulator. They placed these copepods into small aquaria, where the copepods continued to beat their legs, eat and engage in other bodily functions.

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Aquarium with tethered copepod and recording equipment: Credit: J. Xu.

The researchers then added a measured amount of one type of dinoflagellate into the aquarium, and using high resolution videography, watched the copepods feed over the next 24 hours.


Tethered copepod beats its legs to attract a dinoflagellate (round blue circular cell). Credit: J. Xu.

Twelve of the dinoflegellate strains were known to be toxic, though they had several different types of poison. Protoceratium reticulatum was a nontoxic control species of dinoflagellate.  As you can see below, on average, copepods ate more of the nontoxic P. reticulatum than they did of any of the toxic species.


Average dinoflagellate biomass ingested by the tethered copepods.  P. reticulatum  is the nontoxic control.  Error bars are 1 SE.

Xu and Kiørboe identified two major mechanisms that underlie selectivity by the copepod predator.  In many cases, the copepod successfully captured the prey, but then rejected it (top graph below). For one strain of A. tamarense prey, and a lesser extent for K. brevis prey, the predator simply fed less as a consequence of reducing the proportion of time that it beat its feeding legs (bottom graph below).


Copepod feeding behavior on 13 dinoflagellate prey species.  Top graph is fraction of dinoflagellates rejected, while bottom graph is the proportion of time the copepods beats its feeding legs in the presence of a particular species/strain of dinoflagellate.  

If you look at the very first graph in this post, which shows the average dinoflagellate biomass consumed, you will note that both strains of K. brevis (K8 and K9) are eaten very sparingly.  The graphs just above show that the copepod rejects some K. brevis that it captures, and beats its legs a bit less often when presented with K. brevis. However, the rejection increase and leg beating decreases are not sufficient to account for the tremendous reduction in consumption. So something else must be going on.  The researchers suspect that the copepod can identify K. breviscells from a distance, presumably through olfaction, and decide not to capture them. This mechanism warrants further exploration.

One surprising finding of this study is that the copepod responds differently to one strain of the same species (A. tamarense) than it does to the other strains.  Xu and Kiorbe point out that previous studies of copepod/dinoflagellate interactions have identified other surprises.  For example, there are cases where a dinoflagellate strain is toxic to one strain of copepod, but harmless to another copepod strain of the same species. Also, within a dinoflagellate species, one strain may have a very different distribution of toxins than does a second strain.  So why does this degree of variation exist in this system?

The researchers argue that there may be an evolutionary arms race between copepods and dinoflagellates.  The copepod adapts to the toxin of co-occurring dinoflagellates, becoming resistant to the toxin. This selects for dinoflagellates that produce a novel toxin that the copepod is sensitive to. Over time, the copepod evolves resistance to the second toxin as well, and so on… Because masses of ocean water and populations of both groups are constantly mixing, different species and strains are exposed to novel environments with high frequency. Evolution happens.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Xu, J. and Kiørboe, T. (2018), Toxic dinoflagellates produce true grazer deterrents. Ecology, 99: 2240-2249. doi:10.1002/ecy.2479. 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.

Meandering meerkats

Dispersal – the movement of individuals to a new location – is a complex process that ecologists divide into three stages: emigration (leaving the group), transience through an unfamiliar landscape, and settlement in a suitable habitat. Dispersal is fraught with danger, as dispersers usually have a higher chance of starving, of getting eaten by predators, and may suffer a low reproductive rate.  So why move?

The problem is that there are major issues with not moving.  First, if nobody disperses, population densities could increase alarmingly, putting strains on resources and increasing the incidence of disease transmission.  Second, if nobody disperses, close relatives would tend to live near each other.  If these relatives mate, there would be a high probability of bad combinations of genes being expressed, leading to developmental abnormalities or high offspring mortality (geneticists call this inbreeding depression). In social species, such as meerkats, Suricata suricatta, the issues are even more complex, as dispersal could break up social groups that work well together to detect predators or find resources.  Nino Maag and his colleagues explored what factors influence meerkat dispersal decisions, their survival and reproduction, and how those factors affected overall population dynamics in the Kuruman River Reserve in South Africa.


A group of vigilant meerkats. Credit: Arpat Azgul

Meerkats live in groups of 2-50 individuals, with a dominant pair that monopolizes reproduction.  While pregnant, the dominant female usually evicts some subordinate females from the group; this coalition of evictees will either remain apart from the group (but within the confines of the territory) and eventually be allowed back in, or else emigrate to a new territory. By attaching radio collars to subordinate females, the researchers were able to follow emigrants to determine their fates.


Nino Maag collects data in the Kalahari Desert while a meerkat, wearing a radio collar, strolls by. Credit: Gabriele Cozzi.

How does population density affect emigration rates of evicted females?  You might think that meerkats would be most likely to emigrate at high population density, as a way of avoiding resource competition.  As it turns out the story is more complicated.  First, individual females (solid lines in graph below) are more likely to remain with the group (not emigrate) than are groups of two or more females (dashed lines). Second, emigration rates were highest at low population density, intermediate at high population density and lowest at intermediate population density. This nonlinear effect can be explained by low benefits of remaining in a very small group, so evictees are more likely to emigrate.  But as population density (and group size) increase, then the meerkats enjoy higher success as a result of cooperation between individuals  (in particular, detecting and avoiding predators).  But when population densities get too high, there are not enough resources to go around, and evictees are more likely to emigrate.


Proportion of evicted female meerkats that had not yet emigrated in relation to time since eviction at low (red), medium (light blue) and high (dark blue) population density.  Solid lines represent individual females, while dashed lines are coalitions of two or more females.

In addition to the density effects we just discussed, association with unrelated males from other groups early after eviction increased the probability that females would emigrate – presumably this increased the probability females would quickly create offspring in their new territory. Females also dispersed longer distances if unrelated males did not meet up with them, possibly to avoid inbreeding with closely-related males from neighboring groups.

Coalitions were more likely to return to the group if females were not pregnant – in fact 62% of pregnant evictees aborted their litters before being allowed back into the group.  Of the ones that did not abort before returning, only 42% of their litters survived to the first month.

The period of transience, when emigrators are seeking new territories can be prolonged and dangerous.  The mean dispersal distance was 2.24 km, and averaged about 46 days.  Larger coalitions with males present tended to disperse the shortest distances (left graph below). Dispersers took longest to settle at high population density – perhaps there were fewer available territories under those conditions (right graph below).


A. Effect of coalition size and presence of unrelated males on dispersal distance. B. Effect of population density on transience time (interval between emigration and settling).

Large coalitions settled more quickly than did small coalitions, particularly if accompanied by unrelated males.  Once settled, females successfully carried through 89% of their pregnancies (compare that to the 62% abortion rate of females that returned to their original group).  These females had a litter survival rate (to the first month) of 65%.

Social and non-social species are influenced by population density in different ways.  The situation is relatively simple for non-social species; as population size increases, competition between individuals increases, so dispersal is more likely.  However, even for non-social species, we might expect dispersal at very low population levels, if there are no mates available. For social species such as meerkats, the situation is more complex.  Cooperation enhances survival and reproduction, so it is better to be in a larger group (with more cooperators). At the same time, if the group is too large, then resource competition starts being an increasingly disruptive factor. As ecologists collect more dispersal data from other social species, they will be able to test the hypothesis that population density in many species influences dispersal in a non-linear way.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Maag, N. , Cozzi, G. , Clutton‐Brock, T. and Ozgul, A. (2018), Density‐dependent dispersal strategies in a cooperative breeder. Ecology, 99: 1932-1941. doi:10.1002/ecy.2433. 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.

Intertidal tussles: a shifting balance

As an omnivore with a research-oriented palate, I delight in consuming many different food types.  High on my list are crustaceans – in particular the American lobster, Homarus americanus.


A juvenile American lobster, Homarus americanus. Credit: C. Baillie.

However, another crustacean, the invasive Asian shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus, threatens to disrupt my epicurean delight, by interfering with the growth and development of juvenile lobsters in the low intertidal zone in the north Atlantic. Christopher Baillie and Jonathan Grabowski have explored interactions between these lobsters and crabs to unravel how they might be influencing each other.


The invasive Asian shore crab, Hemigrapsus sanguineus. Credit: Rhode Island Marine and Estuarine Invasive Species Site.

The Asian shore crab was first detected off the New Jersey coast in 1988 and quickly spread from North Carolina to Maine. Their increase has coincided with a sharp decrease in the abundance of their rival green crabs over the same range. Baillie and Grabowski were concerned that the Asian shore crab could also be adversely affecting lobster populations. They did monthly surveys (May-October) of both lobster and crab densities in Dorothy Cove in Masachusetts, USA, between 2013 and 2017, and discovered that crab populations were increasing sharply at the same time that lobster populations were decreasing steadily.


Annual average densities of Asian shore crabs (dark gray) and American lobsters (light gray) from surveys at Dorothy Cove, Nahant, Massachusetts, USA, between 2013 and 2017. Error bars are 1 standard error.

The researchers wanted to know whether the increased number of Asian shore crabs was responsible for the lobster decline. Perhaps the two species competed with each other for shelter. Baillie and Grabowski set up experimental tanks, each containing a wire mesh bottom with a rectangular opening cut in the center, so that a burrow could be excavated.  They then introduced a single lobster or crab to the tank, and allowed it to dig a burrow in the cutout center (we’ll call this individual the resident).


In one shelter experiment, the researchers compared the behavior of larger (mean carapace length = 24.7 cm) and smaller (mean carapace length = 9.3 cm) juvenile lobsters in the presence and absence of a variable number of crabs. They discovered that both larger and smaller lobsters spent most of the time in their burrow when no crabs were in the tank. However, introducing crabs was a major disruptor to their mellow existence, with both lobster size classes being more likely to abandon their residences when crabs were present.


Mean (+ standard error) percentage of time spent in shelter by large juvenile lobsters (top graph) and small juvenile lobsters (bottom graph) in relation to absence (Control) or presence of different numbers of crabs.  Different letters above the bars indicate that the means are statistically different from each other.

The reasons for the decline in residence time were very different for large vs. small lobsters.  In an experiment with one large lobster pitted against one crab, resident lobsters initiated an average of 18.00 attacks against crabs, while resident crabs initiated an average of only 0.20 attacks against lobsters. Even if crabs were allowed to establish residency, when a lobster was introduced, it usually picked a fight with the resident crab. So large resident lobsters left their burrows to challenge intruding crabs. Lobsters managed to kill and eat two intruding crabs.

In contrast, smaller lobsters had a much different experience. Crabs attacked resident small lobsters and were able to displace them from their burrow. This was particularly the case when a greater number of crabs were added to the tank.  When eight crabs were added, the poor lobster was kicked out of its burrow, on average, almost 20 times within a six-hour trial.  Under these conditions, crabs attacked the resident lobster almost 40 times per trial.


Crab behavior towards a resident lobster in relation to the number of crabs (heterospecific competitors) introduced into the tank. (A) Mean number of times the lobster is displaced. (B) Mean number of fights initiated by an intruder crab. Error bars are 1 standard error. Different letters above the bars indicate that the means are statistically different from each other.

Baillie and Grabowski also conducted feeding trials – but only with a larger lobster pitted against an individual crab (a blue mussel – a preferred food item for both species – was the prey).  Lobsters were much more successful feeders than crabs, and actually increased their feeding rates in the presence of crabs, presumably having no interest in sharing the mussel with its competitor. Taken together, the shelter and feeding experiments suggest a reversal in dominance structure occurs over the course of lobster development.  The abundant Asian shore crab outcompetes small juvenile lobsters for shelter, but once lobsters attain a certain size, they can outcompete crabs for both shelter and food. We still don’t know, for sure, whether the decline in lobsters in the low intertidal zone at the study site was caused by the increase in crabs; the Asian shore crab may still be expanding its range, so it may be possible to more directly study changes in distribution at other sites both north and south of its current range. Fortunately for lobsters (and for lobster consumers), juveniles can also grow and flourish in deeper ocean waters, where Asian shore crabs are much less of a threat.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Baillie, C. J. and Grabowski, J. H. (2018), Competitive and agonistic interactions between the invasive Asian shore crab and juvenile American lobster. Ecology, 99: 2067-2079. doi:10.1002/ecy.2432. 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.

Eavesdropping on antshrikes

Growing up in the Spy vs. Spy era, and a bit later in the Watergate age, I developed a keen appreciation for clandestine operations, which I assumed at that time were unique to human culture.  As it turns out, eavesdropping is practiced by many different species for a variety of reasons. One important example occurs in bird flocks composed of several species of birds. Antshrikes (Thamnomanes ardesiacus) are sentinel species in multi-species flocks because they produce alarm calls when they spot a predacious raptor flying overhead, alerting other nearby birds of the threat. Ari Martinez and his colleagues wondered whether hanging out with antshrikes allowed these other bird species to expand their niches to forage in areas that might otherwise be too dangerous.

Alarm calling species Thamnomanes ardesiacus Photo cred E. Parra 600dpi (1)

An antshrike perched in the Amazonian rainforest. Credit: E. Parra.

This fear-based niche shift hypothesis makes two related predictions.  First, in the absence of antshrikes, the remainder of the flock should shift its range to areas with lower predation risk.  Second, without antshrikes some birds might leave the flock entirely, because without sentinel services they no longer benefit from hanging with other birds. To test these predictions, Martinez and his colleagues identified eight flocks of 5-8 species (including antshrikes) in a tropical lowland forest in southeastern Peru.  They established four removal flocks from which they removed all antshrikes after capturing them in mist nets. They left four control flocks, in which they captured all antshrikes, but then returned them to the flock (to control for the effects of handling).

Group banding and mist netting birds photo ced Micah Reigner

Research team mist-netting and measuring antshrikes.  Credit Micah Reigner

To determine where the flock was spending its time, researchers used a GPS device every 10 minutes to record the center of the flock. They also censused each flock for species composition from dawn to dusk for three days before removal and three days after removal. In control flocks, home range overlapped extensively (average of 69%) when comparing the first (pre-removal) and second (post-removal) three-day period. In removal flocks, there was only 8% overlap in home range, indicating that the remaining flock was shifting its range when antshrikes were gone.


Home ranges of a control flock (top) and a flock which had antshrikes removed (bottom). Red color indicates home range during the three day pre-removal period, while blue color indicates home range during the three day post-removal period.  Deeper colors indicate greater occupancy. 

But are the remaining species shifting their niches to safer locations when antshrikes are no longer available as sentinels? To answer this question the researchers measured the presence or absence of vegetation cover at different height intervals every 10 minutes at the center of the flock. Comparing the second (post-removal) to the first (pre-removal) period, the removal flocks (those without antshrikes) moved into understory vegetation (0-8 meters high) that was substantially denser than was the vegetation inhabited by the control flocks (those with antshrikes). Presumably, dense understory protects birds without sentinels from being spotted or captured by raptors flying overhead. These dense understory areas are usually associated with less tree cover at higher height intervals (above 16 meters), which allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, resulting in lush vegetation growth.


Proportion change in vegetation cover occupied by flocks from pre-trial to post-trial period at different height intervals.  Positive numbers indicate an increase in vegetation density. Error bars are 95% confidence intervals. Data are based on the behavior of four control and four removal flocks.

Flocking occurrence is the proportion of time individuals of a particular species spend in flocks.  The fear-based niche shift hypothesis predicts that flocking occurrence should decrease when sentinel species are removed because the benefits of flocking are reduced for the remaining species. When the researchers compared post-removal to pre-removal time-periods, five species showed strong reductions in flocking occurrence for removal flocks in comparison to control flocks, two were unchanged, and one species showed an increase in flocking occurence.


Change in proportion flocking occurrence for eight different flocking species in control and removal flocks.  Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.  Chlorothraupis carmioli (CHCA), Epinecrophylla erythrura (EPER), Epinecrophylla leucophthalma (EPLE), Glyphorynchus sprirus (GLSP), Hylophilus ochraceiceps (HYOC), Myrmotherula longipennis (MYLO), Myrmotherula menetriesii (MYME), Xiphorhynchus elegans (XIEL).

The authors emphasize that though flocking occurrence decreased for most species, the flocks did remain intact, which indicates that there are probably other benefits from flocking besides the opportunity to eavesdrop. There might be safety in numbers – a decrease in individual mortality as group size increases, or the possibility that the remaining flock members do provide some information about imminent predator attacks.

Martinez and his colleagues conclude that sentinels help other bird species succeed in tropical rainforests, thriving in dangerous habitats where they might otherwise fear to tread.  These species may provide important ecosystem services, such as dispersing seeds and eating herbivorous insects that threaten plants that are the foundation of these tropical ecosystems.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Martínez, A. E., Parra, E. , Muellerklein, O. and Vredenburg, V. T. (2018), Fear‐based niche shifts in neotropical birds. Ecology, 99: 1338-1346. doi:10.1002/ecy.2217. 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.