Sweltering ants seek salt

Like humans, ants need salt and sugar.  Salt is critical for a functioning nervous system and for maintaining muscle activity, while sugar is a ready energy source. In ectotherms such as ants, body temperature is influenced primarily by the external environment, with higher environmental temperatures leading to higher body temperatures.  When ants get hot their metabolic rates rise, so they can go out and do energetically demanding activities such as foraging for essential resources like salt and sugar. On the down side, hot ants excrete more salt and burn up more sugar.  In addition, like humans, very high body temperature can be lethal, so ants are forced to seek shelter during extreme heat.   As a beginning graduate student, Rebecca Prather wanted to know whether ants adjust their foraging rates on salt and sugar in response to the conflicting demands of elevated temperatures on ants’ physiological systems.

Prather at field site

Rebecca Prather at her field site in Oklahoma, USA. Credit: Rebecca Prather.

Prather and her colleagues studied two different field sites: Centennial Prairie is home to 16 ant species, while Pigtail Alley Prairie has nine species.  For their first experiment, the researchers established three transects with 100 stations baited with vials containing cotton balls and either 0.5% salt (NaCl) or 1% sucrose.  The bait stations were 1 meter apart.  After 1 hour, they collected the vials (with or without ants), and counted and identified each ant in each vial.  The researchers measured soil temperature at the surface and at a depth of 10 cm. The researchers repeated these experiments at 9 AM, 1 PM and 5 PM, April – October, 4 times each month.


Ants recruited to vials with 0.5% salt solution.  Credit: Rebecca Prather.

Sugar is easily stored in the body, so while sugar consumption increases with temperature, due to increased ant metabolic rate, sugar excretion is relatively stable with temperature.  In contrast, salt cannot be stored effectively, so salt excretion increases at high body temperature.  Consequently, Prather and her colleagues expected that ant salt-demand would increase with temperature more rapidly than would ant sugar-demand.


Ant behavior in response to vials with 0.5% salt (dark circles) and 1% sucrose (white circles) at varying soil temperatures at 9AM, 1 PM (13:00) and 5PM (17:00). The three left graphs show the number of vials discovered (containing at least one ant), while the three right graphs show the number of ants recruited per vial.  The Q10 value  = the rate of discovery or recruitment at 30 deg. C divided by the rate of discovery or recruitment at 20 deg. C. * indicates that the two curves have statistically significantly different slopes.

The researchers discovered that ants foraged more at high temperatures. However, when surface temperatures were too high (most commonly at 1 PM during summer months), ants could not forage and remained in their nests.  At all three times of day, ants discovered more salt vials at higher soil temperatures. Ants also discovered more sugar vials at higher temperatures in the morning and evening, but not during the 1 PM surveys. Most interesting, the slope of the curve was much steeper for salt discovery than it was for sugar discovery, indicating that higher temperature increased salt discovery rate more than it increased sugar discovery rate (three graphs on left).

When ants discover a high quality resource, they will recruit other nestmates to the resource to help with the harvest.  Ant recruitment rates increased with temperature to salt, but not sugar, indicating that ant demand for 0.5% salt increased more rapidly than ant demand for 1% sugar (three graphs above on right).

The researchers were concerned that the sugar concentrations were too low to excite much recruitment, so they replicated the experiments the following year using four different sugar concentrations.  Ant recruitment was substantially greater to higher sugar concentrations, but was still two to three times lower than it was to 0.5% salt.


Ant recruitment (y-axis) to different sugar concentrations at a range of soil temperatures (X-axis). Q10 values are to the left of each line of best fit.

Three of the four most common ant species showed the salt and sugar preferences that we described above, but the other common species, Formica pallidefulva, actually decreased foraging at higher temperatures.  The researchers suggest that this species is outcompeted by the other more dominant species at high temperatures, and are forced to forage at lower temperatures when fewer competitors are present.

In a warming world, ant performance will increase as temperatures increase up to ants’ thermal maximum, at which point ant performance will crash.  Ants are critical to ecosystems, playing important roles as consumers and as seed dispersers. Thus many ecosystems in which ants are common (and there are many such ecosystems!) may function more or less efficiently depending on how changing temperatures influence ants’ abilities to consume and conserve essential nutrients such as salt.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Prather, R. M., Roeder, K. A., Sanders, N. J. and Kaspari, M. (2018), Using metabolic and thermal ecology to predict temperature dependent ecosystem activity: a test with prairie ants. Ecology, 99: 2113-2121. doi:10.1002/ecy.2445Thanks 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.

What grows up must go down: plant species richness and soils below.

Almost 20 years ago, Dorota Porazinska was a postdoctoral researcher investigating whether plant diversity influenced the diversity of organisms that lived in the soil below these plants, including bacteria, protists, fungi and nematodes (collectively known as soil biota).  Surprisingly, she and her colleagues discovered no linkages between aboveground and belowground species diversity.  She suspected that two issues were responsible for this lack of linkage. First, the early study lumped related species into functional groups – for example nematodes that eat bacteria, or nematodes that eat fungi.  Lumping simplifies data collection but loses a lot of data because individual species are not distinguished.  Back in those days, identifying species with DNA analysis was time-consuming, expensive, and often impractical. The second issue was that even if aboveground-belowground diversity was linked, it might be difficult to detect.  Ecosystems are very complex, and many belowground species make a living off of legacies of carbon or other nutrients that are the remains of organisms that lived many generations ago.   These legacy organic nutrient pools allow for indirect (and thus more difficult to detect) linkages between aboveground and belowground species.

Porazinska and her colleagues reasoned that if there were aboveground/belowground relationships, they would be easiest to detect in the simplest ecosystems that lacked significant pools of legacy nutrients. They also used molecular techniques that were not readily available for earlier studies to identify distinct species based on DNA analysis. The researchers established 98 1-m radius circular plots at the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research Site in the Colorado, USA Rocky Mountains. At each plot, they identified and counted each vascular plant, and recorded the presence of moss and lichen.  They also censused soil biota by using a variety of DNA amplification and isolation techniques that allowed them to identify bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and nematodes to species.

PorazinskaOpening9256 Photo

Field assistant Jarred Huxley surveys plants in a high species richness plot. Credit Dorota L. Porazinska.

As expected in this alpine environment, plant species richness was quite low, averaging only 8 species per plot (range = 0 – 27).  In contrast to what had been found in other ecosystems, high plant diversity was associated with high diversity of soil biota.


Relationship between plant richness (x-axis) and soil biota richness (y-axis) for (A) bacteria, (B) eukaryotes (excluding fungi and nematodes), (C) fungi, and (D) nematodes.  OTUs are operational taxonomic units, which represent organisms with very similar or identical DNA sequences on a marker gene.  For our purposes, they represent distinct species.

Looking at the graphs above, you can see that different groups responded to different degrees; nematodes had the strongest response to increases in plant richness while fungi had the weakest response.  When viewed at a finer level, some groups of soil organisms, including photosynthetic microorganisms such as cyanobacteria and green algae actually decreased, presumably in response to competition with aboveground plants for light and possibly nutrients.

Given the strong relationship between plant species richness and soil biota richness, Porazinska and her colleagues next explored whether high plant richness was associated with soil nutrient levels (nutrient pools).  In general, there was a strong correlation between plant species richness and nutrient pools (see graphs below).  But soil moisture, and the ability of soil to hold moisture were the two most important factors associated with nutrient pools.


Amount (micrograms per gram of soil) of carbon (left graph) and nitrogen (right graph) in relation to plant species richness.

Ecologists studying soil processes can measure the rates at which microorganisms are metabolizing nutrients such as carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen.  The expectation was that if high plant species richness was associated with higher soil biota richness, and larger soil nutrient pools, then the activity of enzymes that metabolize soil nutrients should proportionally increase with these factors.  The researchers found that enzyme activity was very low where plants were absent or rare, and greatest in complex plant communities.  But the most important factors influencing enzyme activity were the amount of organic carbon present within the soil, and the ability of the soil to hold water.


Patchy vegetation at the field site. Credit: Cliffton P. Bueno de Mesquita.

Porazinska and her colleagues hypothesize that the relationship between plant species richness, soil biota richness, nutrient pools, and soil processes such as enzyme activity, exist in most ecosystems, but are obscured by indirect linkages between these different levels.  They hypothesize that these relationships in other ecosystems such as grasslands and forests are difficult to observe.  In these more complex ecosystems, carbon inputs into the soil form large legacy carbon pools. These carbon pools, and the ability of the soil to hold nutrient pools, fundamentally influence the abundance and richness of soil biota. In contrast, in nutrient-poor soils, such as high Rocky Mountain alpine meadows, legacy carbon pools are rare and small. Consequently, plants and soil biota interact more directly, and correlations between plant species diversity and soil biota diversity are much easier to detect.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Porazinska, D. L., Farrer, E. C., Spasojevic, M. J., Bueno de Mesquita, C. P., Sartwell, S. A., Smith, J. G., White, C. T., King, A. J., Suding, K. N. and Schmidt, S. K. (2018), Plant diversity and density predict belowground diversity and function in an early successional alpine ecosystem. Ecology, 99: 1942-1952. doi:10.1002/ecy.2420. 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.


Savanna plant survival: hanging out in the right crowd

Tyler Coverdale first visited the Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya in 2013, and immediately became painfully aware of the abundant spiny and thorny plants that cover the savanna.  Spines help defend the plants from voracious elephants, giraffes and numerous other herbivores that depend on vegetation for their sustenance.


Camels browsing on  Barleria trispinosa at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. Credit Tyler Coverdale.

Acacia trees such as Acacia etbaica (left foreground below) dominate the landscape, and may be associated with smaller shrubs, such as Barleria trispinosa. In the photo below, there is one B. trispinosa plant immediately below (on the right side) the acacia tree, and a second B. trispinosa plant to its right, more out in the open.  Coverdale realized that being situated immediately below a spiny acacia tree might be advantageous to B. trispinosa, which could be protected from the ravages of elephants and giraffes by the acacia thorns .

MRC landscape

Credit: Tyler Coverdale.

As you might guess by its name, B. trispinosa is itself a very spiny plant, which should help protect it from browsers.  Nonetheless, it still gets eaten, so Coverdale and his colleagues explored whether being under acacias would reduce how much it, and two other related species, got browsed.

Barleria trispinosa

Barleria trispinosa out in the open. Credit: Tyler Coverdale.

The first study was observational – a survey of the damage three species of Barleria suffered when they were under (associated with) acacia trees vs. unassociated with acacia trees. For each Barleria species, the researchers haphazardly chose 10 stems from eight associated and eight unassociated plants, and measured the proportion of these stems that showed physical evidence of being browsed.  As the figure below shows, browsing was sharply lower for each species when it was associated with an acacia plant.


Percentage of stems damaged by browsers for three Barleria species in relation to whether they were associated or unassociated with an acacia tree.* indicates significant differences between means in all figures.

The understory plant community associated with acacias is much denser than the plant community out in the open, so the researchers wondered whether it was the acacia itself, or the other plants associated with it, that were providing protection. They set up an experiment using focal B. trispinosa plants with four treatments (A) unmanipulated control, (B) overstory removal, (C) overstory + understory removal, (D) a procedural control with overstory + understory removal, with the focal plant enclosed in a metal cage to protect it from predators (see Figure below).


Coverdale and his colleagues ran the experiment for one month.  They discovered that removing overhanging acacia branches sharply increased herbivory, but the additional removal of understory neighbors had little additional effect.  Both the unmanipulated controls and procedural controls were unaffected.


Change in % of stems browsed for (A) unmanipulated control (left bar), (B) overstory removal (second from left bar), (C) overstory + understory removal (second from right bar), (D) a procedural control (right bar).  Different letters above bars indicate significant differences between the mean values.

The researchers then investigated how useful these spines are to unassociated B. trispinosa plants. They set up another experiment with four types of spine treatments: (A) unmanipulated controls, (B) 50% spine removal, (C) 100% spine removal, (D) procedural control with 100% spine removal + enclosure within a predator-proof cage. These cages were vandalized shortly after the experiment was set up, so the researchers chose eight plants from a nearby plot (that had all predators excluded for a different experiment) as their procedural control. They discovered that spines are very useful to protect against predators in unassociated B. trispinosa.


Change in % of stems browsed for (A) unmanipulated control (left bar), (B) 50% spine removal (second from left bar), (C) all spines removed (second from right bar), (D) procedural control (right bar).

If you were a plant living under the protection of an acacia tree, it would make sense for you to reduce your investment in thorns, so you could allocate more resources to growth and reproduction.  Does Barleria do this?


Several lines of evidence indicate that all three Barleria species reduce their investment in spines when associated with an acacia. First, a survey of spine density shows a reduced number of spines for all three species when they were associated with acacia trees (top graph).  Second, the spines that are present are significantly shorter in Barleria species associated with acacia trees (middle graph).  In a final survey, Coverdale and his colleagues cut all of the spines off of associated and unassociated Barleria.  For each plant, the researchers calculated the dry weight of spines and of all the other plant tissue.  For each Barleria species, the defensive investment – the ratio of spines to total mass, was substantially reduced in acacia-associated plants in comparison to unassociated plants (bottom graph).

Lastly, can plants react adaptively to browsing?  In other words, will understory plants produce more thorns if they are browsed?  To explore this question, the researchers used scissors to simulate moderate (25%) or heavy (50%) browsing.  They discovered a significant increase in spines produced by unassociated plants one month after clipping. Ecologists call this an induced defense. This induced defense is strongly suppressed in plants that have lived under the protection of acacia trees – in fact there was no significant response to experimental browsing in acacia-associated B. trispinosa plants. The researchers don’t know how long this suppression of induced responses persists. Would browsing induce increased spine growth in B. trispinosa six months, a year or two years after its protective acacia tree died?

Coverdale and his colleagues conclude that the overall benefit of association is positive to the plant populations.  Their studies show better survival and higher reproductive rates of acacia-associated understory plants. There is probably a cost associated with too many offspring competing for resources within a small area, as seedlings tend to grow within 1 meter of their parents.  However the reduction in defense costs probably overrides this cost of competition, leading to increased population size.  The researchers suggest a long-term study of population growth rates for acacia-associated and unassociated plants for several different species to see how general these effects are, and to explore whether other factors, such as soil moisture and nutrient levels influence the allocation and induction of defensive structures such as spines and thorns.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Coverdale, T. C., Goheen, J. R., Palmer, T. M. and Pringle, R. M. (2018), Good neighbors make good defenses: associational refuges reduce defense investment in African savanna plants. Ecology, 99: 1724-1736. doi:10.1002/ecy.2397. 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.

Carbon dioxide’s complex personality

Carbon dioxide (CO2) deservedly gets a lot of bad press because it is responsible for much of the global warming Earth is currently experiencing.  Less publicized, but perhaps equally important, CO2 is acidifying oceans, thereby threatening the continued existence of some critical biomes such as coral reefs and kelp forests (acid interferes with the ability of many marine organisms to build their shells).  But carbon dioxide also has a kinder, gentler side, as it is an essential resource for plants, and in some cases higher CO2 levels can increase a plant’s ability to carry on photosynthesis.  Sean Connell and his colleagues explored this complex personality by studying a marine ecosystem that experiences naturally varying levels of CO2. High CO2 levels and acidity exist near CO2-emitting vents at the study site – a volcanic island (Te Puia o Whakaari) off the coast of New Zealand.

White_Island_James Shook [CC BY 2.5 (https-::creativecommons.org:licenses:by:2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons

The volcanic Te Puia o Whakaari off the coast of New Zealand’s north island. Credit: James Shook [CC BY 2.5 (https-//creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The major players in this ecosystem are the kelp, Ecklonia radiata, several species of turf-forming algae, and two grazers, the snail, Eatoniella mortoni, and the urchin, Evechinus chloroticus.  The typical vegetation in the region is a mosaic of kelp forest, some scattered small patches of algal turf, and sea urchin barrens – hard rock without significant vegetation, a result of overgrazing by sea urchins.  In contrast, extensive algal mats carpeted the rocks near these vents, and the researchers hypothesized that high CO2 levels caused this shift in dominant vegetation.


Sean Connell collects data in a habitat dominated by algal turf (and numerous fish). Credit: anonymous backpacker.

Connell and his colleagues chose two vents and two nearby control sites at a depth of 6-8 meters. The CO2 levels and acidification near the vents were approximately equal to the amount projected for the end of the 21stcentury, but there were no differences between vents and controls in temperature, salinity or nutrient concentrations. The researchers estimated photosynthetic rates for kelp and turf algae by measuring the rate of oxygen production. They also estimated snail consumption rates by caging them for 3 days and measuring how much algal turf they removed.  They used an analogous approach to measure sea urchin consumption rates.

Conditions at vents had a major impact on both producers and consumers.  Kelp production decreased slightly, while turf production increased sharply at vents (Figures A and B below).  Urchin density declined (almost to nonexistence) while gastropod density increased markedly at vents (Figures C and D).  Lastly, consumption rates (on a per individual basis) by urchins plummeted, while consumption rates by snails increased sharply at vents (Figures E and F).


Comparison of production and consumption at control sites vs. carbon dioxide emitting vents.

These patterns converted the normal mosaic of kelp forest, small algal turf patches and urchin barren into turf-dominated habitats.  Algal turf increased in size and frequency near the vents, while kelp forest shrank into near oblivion.


Frequency of patches of turf (light gray bars), urchin barren (medium gray) and kelp (black) in relation to patch size (diameter in meters) at control sites (top graph) and sites near vents (bottom graph).

These results can be pictured visually by the graph below.  Under conditions of present-day pH and CO2 levels, gross algal production is relatively low and urchin consumption is relatively high, which results in negligible net algal turf production (net production = gross production – urchin and gastropod consumption).  High CO2 levels sharply increase gross algal turf production while dramatically decreasing consumption by urchins.  Even though gastropod consumption increases slightly at vents, the overall effect on vents is a dramatic increase of net algal turf production. Consequently, the ecosystem experiences regime shift from kelp to algal turf domination.


Summary of effects of CO2 release by vents (bottom) vs Controls (top). Net algal production (red circle) = Gross algal production – urchin and gastropod consumption.  Net algal production in dark green zone is predicted to be turf-dominated (as is found near vents), light green is a mosaic, while white zone represents urchin barrens (low production and high consumption). Error bars are 1 standard error. 

Under current conditions, kelp is the dominant producer over turf algae in the near offshore ecosystem. High consumption by urchins keep the turf algae in check.  But near CO2 emitting vents, high levels of carbon dioxide have a dual effect on this ecosystem, disproportionately increasing turf algae production rate and decreasing urchin abundance and consumption rate.  This allows the competitively subordinate turf algae to replace the competitively dominant kelp, resulting in a dramatically changed ecosystem.  This occurs in the absence of an increase in ocean temperature.  Given that ocean temperature will increase sharply by 2100 (along with CO2 levels), many species interactions are expected to change in the next century, and ecosystem structure and functioning will be very different from what we observe today.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Connell, S. D., Doubleday, Z. A., Foster, N. R., Hamlyn, S. B., Harley, C. D., Helmuth, B. , Kelaher, B. P., Nagelkerken, I. , Rodgers, K. L., Sarà, G. and Russell, B. D. (2018), The duality of ocean acidification as a resource and a stressor. Ecology, 99: 1005-1010. doi:10.1002/ecy.2209 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.


A tale of too many ticks

Many people I know have had the unfortunate experience of a warm season bout with the following symptoms: fatigue, achy joints, headaches, dizziness, fever and night sweats. Some of these symptoms are part of the daily experience of someone who has reached my level of maturity (okay – age), but in combination they suggest infection by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi that is transmitted by Ixodes ticks, and causes Lyme disease.  So three years ago, when I experienced those symptoms, I went off to my doctor (after some prodding by my wife) who immediately prescribed a regime of antibiotics that is effective against Lyme. My region of the United States (southern Appalachians) is a center of Lyme infection, so the diagnosis was pretty easy, and thankfully, the antibiotics were effective.

Lyme 2016

Each dot represents one verified case of Lyme disease in the United States in 2016.  I live in the dark blotch in western Virginia.

Richard Ostfeld began investigating the ecology of Lyme disease as a result of a chance event.  About 26 years ago Ostfeld started a new project that explored how white-footed mice may control populations of the invasive forest pest, the gypsy moth.  Mice eat the moth pupae for a couple of weeks in mid-summer.  When he started trapping at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, he was amazed to see tremendous burdens of larval blacklegged ticks attached to the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus).  At the field site there was a boom one year and a crash the following year in acorn abundance, which was followed, with a one year time lag, by a boom and a crash in mouse abundance.  Ostfeld wondered what role fluctuating mouse abundance might play in human risk of exposure to tick-borne disease, and how factors affecting mouse abundance might influence the system.

Mouse with 52 larval ticks closeup

This unfortunate mouse harbors 52 larval ticks. Credit: Ostfeld lab at Cary Institute.

Ixodes ticks have a two-year lifecycle, with eggs laid in the spring, six-legged larvae hatching out in summer, getting one blood meal from a rodent or bird host, and emerging as eight-legged nymphs the following spring.  Nymphs find themselves a second host in spring or summer, from which they suck more blood and ultimately metamorphose into adults during the fall season. Adults seek large mammalian hosts, such as white-tailed deer; females feed on the deer, mate with males (who generally don’t feed), lay eggs and die, usually the following spring.


Human finger with (left to right) adult female, adult male, nymph and larval ticks. Credit: Ostfeld lab at Cary Institute.

What makes these ticks tick? Ostfeld, Taal Levi and their colleagues knew from previous work that biotic factors such as mice, acorns and deer were likely to be important, but that predators on mice might also play a role.  It also seemed likely that abiotic factors such as temperature, moisture and snow cover could also be important.  For 19 years, the researchers systematically collected data related to these factors from six large (2.25 ha) field plots at the Cary Institute. They used standard capture-mark-recapture methods to estimate rodent abundance, and data from the Cary Institute’s bow-hunting program to estimate deer abundance. They monitored the presence of carnivores with LED camera traps that were baited with cans of cat food.


Coyote captured on LED camera. Credit: Ostfeld lab at Cary Institute.

Lastly, the researchers needed to estimate tick abundance and the percentage of ticks that were infected with the Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi.  To estimate tick abundance, the researchers systematically dragged 1-m2 white corduroy drag cloths across each plot every three weeks throughout the times of peak tick abundance. Ticks that are searching for a host (known as questing ticks) will grab onto the drag cloth, so in essence, drag cloth censuses provides an estimate of ticks that have not had a blood meal.  Tick infection rates were estimated by subjecting an average of 378 ticks per year to molecular analyses (initially direct immunofluorescence assay, and later quantitative PCR).


Researchers sample for questing ticks by dragging a cloth across the forest floor. Credit: Ostfeld lab at Cary Institute.

Across the 19 years of the study, the density of infected nymphs was strongly correlated to mouse density the previous year, and weakly correlated with deer density two years previously.  Recall the details of the two-year life cycle; it takes a year to go from tick larva to nymph, and a second year to go from nymph to adult to eggs, so these time lags are not surprising. What is surprising is that the density of infected nymphs is negatively correlated with mouse density in the current year and with winter warmth.


Density of infected ticks (x 100) per 100 m2 in relation to (far left) mouse density (per 2.25 ha) in the previous year, (2nd from left) mouse density in the current year, (2nd from right) winter warmth, and (far right) deer density two years previous.  Different color dots represent the six different field sites.

Ostfeld and his colleagues explain that during years of high mouse abundance, many nymphs were attached to rodent hosts, or had already had a blood meal, and thus were not collected on drag cloths. By using the abundant rodents as their secondary hosts, rather than people, high rodent abundance is actually decreasing the probability that the nymphs will infect a human. Infection of humans by adult ticks is less common than infection of humans by nymphs, because many nymphs don’t survive to adulthood, male adults do not feed, and adults are more likely than nymphs to be spotted and removed, due to their larger size.

Nymphal infection prevalence (NIP) measures the fraction or proportion of the nymphs within the community that are actually carrying the bacterium.  From a human perspective, a high NIP indicates that a tick bite is relatively likely to lead to Lyme disease. There was only a small relationship between rodent density the previous year and NIP, so the researchers decided to see if the composition of the predator community might influence NIP. They reasoned that foxes and bobcats were known to be major mouse predators, so by eating mice, they would be removing infected ticks from the population.  Raccoons and opossums have a double effect; they eat mice – though not as many as do foxes and bobcats.  In addition they are dilution hosts, in that they provide blood for nymphs, but do not serve as a vector to the bacterium.  Thus a community with all four of these predators was expected to reduce NIP. The effect of coyotes were more complex because they eat mice, which should reduce NIP, but they also eat or scare away other predators, such as foxes and opossums, which could increase NIP.


Effect size of predator community structure on nymphal infection prevalence (NIP).  Top row animals are (left to right) fox, raccoon, opossum and bobcat.  Communities with coyotes (bottom five communities) tend to have higher NIP, particularly if they lack other predators.

In general, more diverse predator communities tended to have lower nymphal infection prevalence.  Communities with coyotes that also lacked some of the other predators tended to have the highest NIP values.

Ostfeld and his colleagues were surprised to discover that a warm and dry winter and spring season tended to depress tick abundance, while cold winters had little effect. Presumably, emerging nymphs can dry out under warm, dry conditions. The researchers were also surprised to observe the strong decrease in tick abundance associated with high mouse abundance in the current year. It is not uncommon for a boom in mouse abundance one year to be followed by a mouse population crash the next year.  When that occurs, there will be a large number of questing nymphs lurking in the vegetation for hosts, and thus the potential for a major outbreak of Lyme disease.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Ostfeld, R. S., Levi, T. , Keesing, F. , Oggenfuss, K. and Canham, C. D. (2018), Tick‐borne disease risk in a forest food web. Ecology, 99: 1562-1573. doi:10.1002/ecy.2386. 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.

Kelp consumption curtailed by señorita

Miranda Haggerty was diving through a kelp forest, and noticed that many kelp bore a large number of tiny limpets that were housed in small scars that they (or a fellow-limpet) had excavated on the kelp’s surface. This got her thinking about how these scars might affect the kelp, and equally relevant, whether there were any limpet predators that might lend the kelp a hand (or a mouth) by removing limpets.

Jerry Kirkhart

A limpet grazes on a kelp frond. Credit: Jerry Kirkhart

Feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii) is a foundation species within the subtidal marine system off the California coast, providing food and habitat for many species that live on or among its fronds. The tiny seaweed limpet, Lottia insessa, specializes on feather boa kelp, grazing on its fronds and living within the scars. Many invertebrates and fish live within the kelp forest, but the most abundant fish is the señorita, Oxyjulis californica. Haggerty wondered whether the señorita might benefit the kelp (directly) by removing limpets, or (indirectly) by scaring limpets away – what ecologists call a trait-mediated indirect interaction.


The señorita – a fearsome predator of limpets.  Credit: Miranda Haggerty

The first order of business was to determine whether the limpets were actually harming the kelp.  Haggerty and her colleagues approached this in two ways.  First they chose 94 kelp plants from kelp forests off the California coast.  From each individual they chose one grazed and one ungrazed frond (each 3 m long). Grazed fronds averaged 5-10 scars and at least 2 limpets per meter of length.  Every three weeks they visited their kelp to score for broken fronds. In 29 of 30 cases, the grazed frond broke before the ungrazed frond (in the remaining cases the entire plant was missing, or both fronds broke and the researchers could not tell which had broken first).


Photo of feather boa kelp showing grazing scars, including one housing a limpet (left).  Diagram of feather boa kelp showing multiple fronds (right).

But the researchers were concerned that perhaps limpets chose to graze on weaker fronds, so the breakage was not caused by grazing scars, but by limpet choice.  To account for this concern, Haggerty and her colleagues chose 43 ungrazed kelp plants, placed three  limpets on one frond, and chose a second, equal-sized frond as an unmanipulated control. Once again, they visited their plants every three weeks, and discovered that grazed fronds broke first in all 20 pairs that the sequence of frond breakage could be determined.  Clearly, limpet grazing is bad news for feather boa kelp.

How does the señorita fit into this system? The researchers designed a laboratory experiment to address this question.  They used 10 large tanks (1700 L), and set up five different experimental treatments to compare direct effects of predation, and indirect effects of predator presence, on limpet grazing, and ultimately on kelp survival. To isolate the direct effects of predation from the indirect effects of predator cues on limpets, Haggerty and her colleagues placed four kelp fronds into fish exclosure cages, which were housed in the large tanks, and placed three limpets onto some of these fronds.  To mimic actual predation (CE treatment in Table below), they removed limpets by hand at a constant rate typical of señorita predation. For the NCE treatment (testing indirect effects of predator presence) they introduced señorita into the large tank so the limpets experienced the predator cues, but were not eaten. The different treatments are summarized in the table below. These experiments ran for one week and each treatment was replicated 10 times.

HaggertyTableFinalEach day the researchers monitored the number of limpets and grazing scars.  After one week, Haggerty and her colleagues counted the number of grazing scars, and measured the breaking strength of each frond by clamping the frond’s end to a table and pulling on the opposite end with a spring scale until it broke. They then recorded the amount of force needed to break the frond.


Clamped kelp frond whose breaking strength has been tested.  Notice that the frond broke at a grazing scar (right). Credit Miranda Haggerty.

Not surprisingly, the predator control (PC) kelp (limpets present without señorita) had the most scars and lost the greatest amount of tissue.  Kelp receiving the consumptive predator effect treatment (CE) had fewer scars and lost less tissue than PC.  But interestingly, kelp receiving NCE and TPE treatments had significantly fewer scars than the CE kelp, and were statistically indistinguishable from each other.  Thus, in the laboratory, the presence of señorita cues (NCE treatment) was more important than actual predation (CE treatment) in reducing kelp scarring and tissue consumption (top and middle graph below).  As a result, the NCE treated kelp were stronger (had greater breaking strength) than were the CE treated kelp (bottom graph below).


Mean (+ standard error) number of grazing scars (top), mass of tissue consumed (middle) and breaking strength (bottom) of kelp in response to five experimental treatments. CE = consumptive effect, NCE = non-consumptive effect, TPE = total predator effect, PC = predator control, LC = limpet control. Different letters above bars indicate significant differences between the means when comparing treatments.

Haggerty and her colleagues replicated this experiment, with a few experimental design modifications, in a field setting.  As with the laboratory experiment we’ve just discussed, the researchers found a very strong non-consumptive effect. The researchers suspect that these limpets respond to chemical cues emitted by their señorita predators. They could not respond to many types of sensory cues because they lack auditory organs, and the experimental design prevented fish from transmitting any shadows (visual cues) or vibrational cues. In addition previous studies have shown that some limpet species use chemoreception for predator avoidance, foraging and homing. However, the nature of this chemical cue is yet to be discovered for this predator-prey system.


Schooling señorita. Credit: Miranda Haggerty

Trophic cascades occur when the effects of one species on another species cascade down through the ecosystem. In this case, señorita predators directly and indirectly reduce limpet density, which increases the survival of kelp – a foundation species for this ecosystem. The researchers point out that this trophic cascade only occurs in the southern feather boa kelp range, because señorita are absent further north.  We don’t know if limpets have other predators in the northern range, but we do know that the kelp are structurally more robust further north, so they (and the ecosystem) may be relatively immune to limpet-induced destruction.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Haggerty, M. B., Anderson, T. W. and Long, J. D. (2018), Fish predators reduce kelp frond loss via a trait‐mediated trophic cascade. Ecology, 99: 1574-1583. doi:10.1002/ecy.2380. 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.