Invasive crayfish hit the self-destruct button

One important feature of a biological invasion is that invaders can change an entire ecosystem in a substantial way.  A possible outcome of this change is that, in theory, an invasive species could inadvertently make an ecosystem less suitable as a habitat for itself.  Does this happen, and if so, under what circumstances?  One reason invasive species are so successful is that they usually can increase in population size very quickly.  Ecologists have discovered that species with the potential to increase very quickly may also have the potential to decline equally rapidly and then increase again, going through repeated boom-bust cycles of population size.  Thus if an invasive species starts to decline, it does not always mean that this decline will continue over time. Consequently, monitoring a biological invasion for only a few years may give a misleading picture of long-term prognosis for the invasive species and the ecosystem.

Eric Larson was able to address these problems when he began his postdoctoral research with David Lodge at the University of Notre Dame in 2014. Lodge (and John Magnuson before him) has studied the rusty crayfish (Faxonius rusticus) invasion in 17 northern Wisconsin lakes since the 1970s, using the same bait (beef liver) and the same traps on the same days each year.

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Crysta Gantz prepares to bait a trap with beef liver, which the crayfish love, but she – not so much! Credit: Eric R. Larson.

Three graduate students (the other co-authors of the paper) had continued data collection and done extensive mapping of the lake bottoms.  When Larson joined the research program he had about 40 years of data and 17 well-described lakes.  He knew that rusty crayfish were declining in some lakes and not others, and he and his colleagues were ready to explore whether these declines could be tied in to some environmental variable that the crayfish were influencing in some lakes, but not others.

AllequashLake

Allequash Lake. Credit Eric R. Larson

As an avid fisherman (more in my mind than in actuality), I have, on many occasions, caught a nice bass only to have it regurgitate the contents of its stomach, which usually includes bits of crayfish.  As it turns out, predacious fish such as bass love to eat crayfish, and crayfish are more likely to survive in environments that provide hiding places such as rocks or luxurious macroalgae that grow in sand or muck. The problem is that crayfish enjoy dining on macroalgae, so they can do themselves a disservice by eating their shelter from predators, effectively changing their environment so that their invasion is no longer sustainable.  Does this actually happen?

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Two rusty crayfish discuss the issues of the day. Credit: Eric R. Larson.

Larson and his colleagues continued collecting data on 17 lakes, and used their long-term data set to evaluate whether rusty crayfish populations were not declining (steady or increasing), declining or occupying an ambiguous gray zone where there was no clear trend in how the population was changing. The analysis showed that three lakes were not declining since the rusty crayfish invasion, eight lakes had declined substantially and six lakes were ambiguous.

LarsenFig1

The researchers turned their attention to the lake-bottom substrate.  Were rusty crayfish more successful in rocky bottom lakes that gave them continuous predator protection?  Their analysis indicated that the three lakes where the invasion was going strong had the rockiest substrate, while the eight lakes experiencing population declines after the rust crayfish invasion were significantly less rocky.

LarsenFig2

Proportion rocky substrate in lakes whose rusty crayfish populations are in decline (red), have an ambiguous trend (black) or are not in decline (blue). The horizontal line within each box is the median value, box bottom and top are 25th and 75th percentile, and whiskers are the 10th and 90th percentile. Non-overlapping letters above the bars (a and b) indicate significant differences between the groups.

The researchers conclude that in the absence of rocky substrate, the rusty crayfish is eating the aquatic macrophytes that grow from the sandy lake bottom, thereby exposing itself to predators.  Larson and his colleagues recommend simultaneous surveys of crayfish populations and density of aquatic macrophytes to see whether lakes may oscillate between states dominated by one or the other.

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Captured crayfish. Photo Eric R. Larson

Researchers want to know how commonly invasive species modify habitat in a self-destructive way.  A literature review of invasive species declines failed to find much evidence, but there are not enough long-term data sets to get a sense of how frequently this occurs. The problem is that researchers need to monitor the invasive species population and the relevant habitat variables for an extended time period.  The jury is still out on this question and only time (and careful data collection) will tell.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Larson, E. R.,  Kreps, T. A.,  Peters, B.,  Peters, J. A., and  Lodge, D. M.  2019.  Habitat explains patterns of population decline for an invasive crayfish. Ecology  100( 5):e02659. 10.1002/ecy.2659. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

A saltier Great Salt Lake supports a shifting ecosystem

In science, like many other fields, “who you know” can be critical to success. Eric Boyd from Montana State University was introduced to the Great Salt Lake (GSL) ecosystem by his colleague Bonnie Baxter, a professor at Westminster College and the Great Salt Lake Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Baxter was fascinated by microbialites- deposits of carbonate mud of diverse shape and structure, that harbor an impressive diversity and abundance of microorganisms.  Some of these microorganisms are photosynthetic, using dissolved organic carbon from the water to build carbohydrates; as such they are the primary producers which feed the rest of the ecosystem. Baxter impressed upon Boyd the need to understand the ecosystem, which feeds huge populations of two consumer species, the brine fly Ephydra gracilis and the brine shrimp Artemia franciscana. Up to 10 million birds, representing about 250 species, feed on these two species over the course of a year.

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Eric Boyd collects samples from the north arm of GSL. Credit: Bonnie Baxter.

In 1959 a railroad causeway was built that divided GSL into a south and north arm, which differ from each other in one critical way.  The south arm receives freshwater input from three rivers, while the north arm’s only freshwater input is rain and snowmelt.  Both arms are hypersaline; the south arm is 4-5 times saltier than typical ocean water, while the north arm is about twice as salty as the south arm. Boyd and Baxter recognized that these salinity differences were probably impacting the microbial communities in the two arms; in fact preliminary observations indicated that microbialite communities were no longer forming in the north arm.  So when Melody Lindsay began her doctoral research with Boyd, she elected to investigate how salinity was influencing the microbialite communities in the lake.

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Melody Lindsay (right) and Bonnie Baxter (left) planning to sample in the south arm of GSL.  Credit: Jaimi Butler.

Lindsay and her colleagues collected samples of microbialite mats from the south arm of the lake where the salinity of the water measured 15.6% (as a comparison, typical ocean water is about 3.5%).  At each of six salinity levels (8, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30%), the researchers set up three microcosms of 150 ml of lakewater, which they then inoculated with 10 grams of homogenized microbial mat. They then sampled microbial diversity and abundance four and seven weeks after beginning the experiment.

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Exposed microbialites along the south arm’s shoreline.  Credit: Eric Boyd.

This experiment was conceptually simple, but technically a bit of a challenge.  Microorganisms are difficult to identify and count; and in fact it is likely that some of the species were new to science. Fortunately, researchers can use molecular approaches (quantitative PCR) to measure the quantity of each type of 16S rRNA gene in each microcosm. Each species of microorganism has distinct rRNA genes, so different base sequences indicate different microorganisms.  This allows researchers to estimate how much of each species is present. One restriction is that closely related species will have almost identical rRNA genes, so they may be difficult to distinguish from each other.

Overall, microorganism abundance was 152% greater after four weeks and 128% greater after seven weeks at the 15% salinity. Recall that these samples came from microbialites associated with 15.6% salinity, so this finding indicates good growth at the salinity which the microorganisms have recently experienced.  Interestingly, microorganisms thrived even better at 10% salinity.  But higher salinity levels, particularly  25% and 30%, were very detrimental to microbial growth.

LindsayFig2

Change in abundance of 16S rRNA gene from microcosms incubated for four and seven seeks in comparison to abundance at week 0 for each salinity.  Significant differences are comparisons with abundance at week 0. NS = no significant difference, * P<0.1, ** P<0.01, *** P<0.001, **** P<0.0001. Error bars = 1SE.

The researchers broke down their results into taxonomic Orders, based on the 16S rRNA sequence of each gene. The two most common Orders were Sphingobacteriales and Spirochaetales, which both grew best at low salinity. The next most common Orders were a cyanobacterium from the Order Croococcales, and an alga from the Order Naviculales.  Species from these two taxonomic Orders are foundational to the ecosystem, because they are photosynthetic and relatively large. These dominant producers either directly, or indirectly, feed the rest of the ecosystem. Croococcales grew best at intermediate salinities (10-20%), while Naviculales did best at 8-15%, but also reasonably well at 20% salinity (see the figure below for a summary of the most common Orders).

LindsayFig3

Abundance of taxonomic Orders of Microorganisms incubated at different salinities at 4 and 7 weeks, in comparison to initial abundance (week 0 = yellow square). Darker green squares indicate a greater increase, and darker brown squares indicate a greater decrease in abundance.  The most common Orders are on top, least common are on the bottom. Het = heterotroph, PP = primary producers, PhH = photoheterotroph.

Overall, primary productivity, as measured by how much dissolved organic carbon was taken up by the photosynthesizers, was greatest at 10 and 15%, and declined sharply above 20% salinity.  In addition, brine shrimp, one of the two important animal consumers of microorganisms, hatched and survived best at the lowest salinities.

Mating brine shrimpHans Hillewaert

Two mating brine shrimp under the watchful eyes of an observer. Credit: Hans Hillewaert.

Lindsay and her colleagues conclude that conditions in the south arm are conducive to microbialite communities and the consumers they support.  However, the north arm has much lower productivity, with salinity levels so high that salt is spontaneously crystalizing out of solution in some areas. Given that climate change models predict increased drought severity over the next century in the GSL region, it is very likely that salinity levels will rise throughout the lake.  Over the same time period, humans are expected to increase water usage from the rivers that flow into the lake, which will further drop water levels in the lake, increase salinity in GSL, and dry out many of the microbial mats. This loss of ecosystem production is expected to cascade up the ecosystem, reduce brine shrimp abundance and ultimately the abundance and diversity of migratory birds that feed on them.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Lindsay, M. R.,  Johnston, R. E.,  Baxter, B. K., and  Boyd, E. S.  2019.  Effects of salinity on microbialite‐associated production in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Ecology  100( 3):e02611. 10.1002/ecy.2611. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Fewer infections found in forest fragments

As human populations expand, we are converting ecosystems from one state to another.  In the case of tropical forests, conversion of forest to cropland may leave behind fragments of relatively undisturbed forest surrounded by a matrix of cropland or other forms of development.  Conservation ecologists are exploring whether ecological processes and ecosystem structure in these fragments work pretty much like normal forested regions, or whether fragments behave differently.  To do this, in a few locations around the world such as the Wog Wog Fragmentation Experiment in New South Wales, Australia, researchers have systematically created forest fragments of various sizes.  They can then ask a variety of questions comparing fragments vs. intact forest. For example,  how does species diversity, or how do processes such as competition, predation and mutualism differ in the two landscapes?

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Aerial photo of Wog Wog Fragmentation Experiment at the time the experiment began in 1987. Credit: Chris Margules.

Julian Resasco was working as a postdoctoral associate in Kendi Davies’ lab at the University of Colorado on a study that looked at changes in invertebrate communities in response to fragmentation at Wog Wog. Beginning in 1985, researchers had set up a network of pitfall traps, which are cups that are buried with their tops level to the ground, so that any careless organism that wanders in will be trapped in the cup.  Some pale-flecked garden skinks, Lampropholis guichenoti, also had the misfortune to become entrapped and became subjects for the study. The invertebrates, and the 186 unfortunate skinks were preserved in alcohol and stored as part of the Australian National Wildlife Collection.

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Skink museum specimens at the Australian National Wildlife Collection. Credit: Julian Resasco.

Much later, Resasco arrived and began dissecting skink guts to analyze the prey items for a study that looked at how the skinks shifted prey consumption (their feeding niche) in response to fragmentation. While dissecting the skink guts, he noticed that some of the skinks had worms (nematodes) inside their guts.  These nematodes were relatively common among skinks from continuous eucalypt forests, rare among skinks from eucalypt fragments, and absent from skinks in the cleared, pine plantation matrix.

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Top. The study area in southeast Australia, showing location of continuous forest, forest fragments and surrounding matrix.  Dots indicate locations of pitfall traps. The matrix was planted in pine seedlings soon after fragmentation.  Bottom. The pale-flecked garden sunskink Lampropholis guichenotti. Credit: Jules Farquar

As it turned out, the nematode was a new species, which Resasco and a colleague (Hugh Jones) named Hedruris wogwogensis. Nematodes in the genus Hedruris use crustaceans as intermediate hosts, which alerted Resasco and his colleagues that the terrestrial amphipod Arcitalitrus sylvaticus, which was very common in the pitfall traps, was probably an important intermediate host.  When amphipods from pitfall traps were examined microscopically, a small portion of them were infected with Hedruris wogwogensis. The researchers concluded that amphipods became infected when they ate plants that harbored nematode eggs or young nematodes, which then developed in amphipod guts, and were passed on to skinks that ate the amphipods.  Thus somewhat inadvertently, one aspect of the study transitioned into the question of how fragmentation can influence the transmission of parasites.

After concluding their skink dissections, Resasco and his colleagues discovered that skinks in continuous forest had five times the infection rate as did skinks in fragmented forest.  In addition, no skinks collected in the matrix were infected. Infected skinks harbored a similar number of nematodes, whether they lived in continuous forest or fragments (see the Table below). Lastly, amphipods were considerably more common in skink guts and pitfall traps from continuous forest, less so in fragments, and least in the matrix.

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Summary of data collected by Resasco and his colleagues. Nematode intensity is the mean number of nematodes per infected skink. Nematode abundance is the mean number of nematodes per skink (infected and uninfected). 

The researchers put these findings together in a structural equation model.  The boxes in the model below represent the variables, while the numbers in smaller boxes over the arrows are the regression coefficients, with larger positive numbers (in black) indicating stronger positive effects, and larger negative numbers (in red) indicating stronger negative effects.  The model revealed three important findings.  First, habitat fragmentation strongly reduced amphipod abundance.  High amphipod abundance was associated with high nematode abundance (that is the +0.20 in the model), so lower amphipod abundance from fragmentation reduced nematode abundance. Second, habitat fragmentation positively affected skink abundance – more skinks were captured in fragments than in intact forest, but this increase had no effect on nematode abundance in skinks.  Finally, note the direct arrows connecting “Fragmentation” to “Log nematode abundance in skinks”.  This indicates that other variables (beside amphipod abundance) are reducing infection rates in skinks that live in fragments and the matrix.

ResascoFig3

Structural equation model showing effects of fragmentation on nematode infection in skinks. Amphipods are the intermediate host.  Black arrows indicate significant positive effects of one variable on the other, while red arrows indicate significant negative effects. Solid lines represent fragments compared to controls and dashed lines represent the matrix compared to controls. Thicker lines are stronger effects.

At this point, we still have an incomplete understanding of the system.  We know that fragmentation reduces amphipods, which require a moist and shaded environment to thrive.  Reduced amphipod abundance leads to lower nematode infection rates in skinks.  But we know that other variables are important as well; perhaps nematodes survive more poorly in fragment and matrix soils. Interestingly, pine trees were planted in the matrix and are beginning to mature and shade out the matrix environment. Amphipod abundances are on the rise, so the researchers predict that nematode infection rates will begin to increase accordingly.  Those studies have begun.

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Eucalypt forest canopy at Wog Wog. Credit: Julian Resasco.

Looking at the bigger picture, it is clear that fragmentation may decrease (as in this study) or increase the abundance of an intermediate host. As an example of fragmentation increasing intermediate host abundance, the researchers describe a study in which fragmentation increased the abundance of the white footed mouse, an intermediate host for black-legged ticks (that host the bacteria that causes Lyme disease). We need to unravel the connections between landscape factors and the various species they influence, so we can begin to understand how human changes to the landscape can influence the transmission of diseases.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Resasco, J.,  Bitters, M. E.,  Cunningham, S. A.,  Jones, H. I.,  McKenzie, V. J., and  Davies, K. F..  2019. Experimental habitat fragmentation disrupts nematode infections in Australian skinks. Ecology  100( 1):e02547. 10.1002/ecy.2547. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Invasive crayfish depress dragonflies and boost mosquitoes

Paradoxically, obliviousness and intense focus can be two sides of the same coin, as the following story highlights.  As a new graduate student at the University of Minnesota, I took a field ecology course at the University’s field station at Lake Itasca (famously known as headwaters of the Mississippi River).  One afternoon we watched dragonflies at a small pond; the male dragonflies were obviously patrolling territories and behaving thuggishly whenever intruders came by, and amorously whenever females of their species approached.  Surprisingly, territorial males chased off male intruders of any species, even though they posed no reproductive threat to them.  Why, I wondered…  So I sat there for many hours and kept very careful track of who chased whom, and for how long.  Big focus time. Ultimately, these observations blossomed into my doctoral dissertation.  Unfortunately, these observations also blossomed into the most virulent case of poison ivy known to humanity, as my intense focus on dragonflies obliviousized me to the luxurious patch of poison ivy, which served as my observation perch.

Anax junius Henry Hartley

Anax junius dragonflies in copula.  The male has the bright blue abdomen.  Credit: Henry Hartley.

Despite this ignoble incident, dragonflies remain one of my favorite animal groups.  They are strikingly beautiful, brilliant flyers, and fun to try to catch. In addition, they have so many wonderful adaptations, including males with penises that are shaped to scoop out sperm (previously introduced by another male) from their mate’s spermatheca, and females who go to extremes to avoid repeated copulation attempts, for example, by playing dead when approached by a male. Thus I was delighted to come across research by Gary Bucciarelli and his colleagues that highlighted the important role dragonflies play in stream ecosystems just west of Los Angeles, California.

Back Camera

Captured dragonfly nymph.  Dragonflies require from one to four years to develop in aquatic systems, before they metamorphose into terrestrial winged adults. As nymphs, they are fearsome predators on aquatic invertebrates. As adults, they specialize on winged insects, though there are stories of them killing small birds. Credit: Gary Bucciarelli

Bucciarelli and his colleagues came up with their research question as a result of working in local streams with students on a different project.  They wanted to know if invasive non-native crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) affect the composition of stream invertebrates and whether removal of crayfish could lead to rapid recovery of these invertebrate communities.

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Invasive crayfish, P. clarkii, sits on the stream bottom. Credit: Gary Bucciarelli

The researchers collected stream invertebrate samples and noticed a dramatic pattern – in all the streams with crayfish there were numerous mosquito larvae, but in all of the streams without crayfish there were no mosquito larvae and much greater numbers of dragonfly nymphs. This led them to formulate and test two related hypotheses. First, dragonfly nymphs (Aeshnaspecies) are more efficient predators on mosquitoes (Anopheles species) than are the invasive crayfish. Second, crayfish interfere with dragonfly predation on mosquitoes in streams where crayfish and dragonflies are both present.

Field Sampling

Student researchers collect stream samples. Credit: Gary Bucciarelli

Bucciarelli and his colleagues systematically sampled 13 streams monthly from March to October 2016 in the Santa Monica Mountains. Eight streams have had crayfish populations since the 1960s, while four streams never had crayfish, and one stream had crayfish removed as part of a restoration effort in 2015. Overall, streams with crayfish had a much lower number of dragonfly nymphs than did streams without crayfish.  In addition, streams with crayfish had substantial populations of Anopheles mosquitoes, while streams without crayfish (but much higher dragonfly populations) had no Anopheles mosquitoes in the samples.

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Number of mosquito larvae (MSQ) and dragonfly nymphs (DF)  by month in streams with crayfish (CF – top row of data) or without crayfish (CF Absent – bottom row)

This field finding supports both of the hypotheses, but the evidence is purely correlational.  So the researchers brought the animals into the laboratory to test predation under more controlled conditions.  They introduced 15 mosquito larvae into tanks, and exposed them to one of four treatments: (1) a single crayfish, (2) a single dragonfly nymph, (3) one crayfish and one dragonfly nymph, or (4) no predators. The researchers counted the numbers of survivors periodically over the three day trials. As the graph below indicates, dragonflies are vastly superior consumers of mosquito larvae compared to crayfish.  However, when forced to share a tank with crayfish, dragonflies stop hunting, either huddling in corners or actually perching on the crayfish.  By 36 hours into the experiment, all of the dragonflies had been eaten by the crayfish.  After three days, mosquito survival was similar when comparing tanks with crayfish alone with tanks that had both a crayfish and a dragonfly.

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Mean number of surviving mosquito larvae in tanks with a lone dragonfly (DF), a lone crayfish (CF), one crayfish and one dragonfly (CF+DF) in comparison to controls with no predators.

Bucciarelli and his colleagues conclude that dragonfly nymphs are much more efficient predators of mosquito larvae than are crayfish. But when placed together with crayfish, dragonfly foraging efficiency plummeted. Field surveys showed a negative correlation between crayfish abundance and dragonfly larvae, and much greater mosquito larva populations in streams with crayfish.  This supports the conclusion that invasive crayfish cause mosquito populations to increase sharply by depressing dragonfly populations and foraging efficiency.  This is a complex trophic cascade because crayfish increase mosquito populations despite eating a substantial number of mosquito individuals.

The researchers argue that crayfish probably relegate dragonfly larvae to inferior foraging habitats, thereby limiting their efficiency as mosquito predators. As such, ecosystem services provided by dragonflies to humans are greatly diminished.  Recently, several new mosquito species that are disease vectors have moved into California.  Thus the loss of dragonfly predation services could pose a public health threat to the human population.  Bucciarelli and his colleagues recommend removing the invasive crayfish to restore the natural community of predators, including dragonflies, which will then naturally regulate the increased number of potential disease vectors.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Bucciarelli, G. M., Suh, D. , Lamb, A. D., Roberts, D. , Sharpton, D. , Shaffer, H. B., Fisher, R. N. and Kats, L. B. (2019), Assessing effects of non‐native crayfish on mosquito survival. Conservation Biology, 33: 122-131. doi:10.1111/cobi.13198. Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.

Quoll vs. toad: a toxic brew

A native of Central and South America, the cane toad, Rhinella marina, was introduced to Australia in 1935 with great fanfare. The plan was for the voracious cane toad to eat all of the grey-backed cane beetles that were plaguing sugar cane plantations in northern Australia (a similar introduction had been successful in Puerto Rico).  But the plan failed, in part because there was no cover from predators, so the toads were not enthusiastic about hanging out in sugar cane plantations, and in part because adult beetles live primarily near the tops of sugar cane, and cane toads are poor climbers.

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A cane toad. Credit: Ben Philips

So now, northern Australia has a cane toad plague, which is wreaking havoc on ecosystems, and threatening many native species, including the northern quoll, Dasyurus hallucatus. These omnivorous marsupials eat fruit, invertebrates and small vertebrates.  Unfortunately, their long list of food items includes cane toads, which are highly toxic to most consumers, having poison glands that contain bufotoxin, a composite of several very nasty chemicals.  If a northern quoll eats a cane toad, it’s bye bye quoll.

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A northern quoll. Credit: Ella Kelly.

Unfortunately most quolls have not gotten the message; huge numbers are dying, and populations are going extinct.  As toads continue their invasion from north to south, more quoll populations, particularly those in northwestern Australia, will be at risk.

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Map of Australia showing past (light shading) and recent (dark shading) northern quoll distribution, and present (solid line) and future (dashed line) cane toad distribution.

Some quolls show “toad-smart” behavior and don’t eat toads. Ella Kelly and Ben Phillips are trying to understand how this happens. This is particularly important because a few quoll populations have managed to survive the cane toad plague by virtue of being toad-smart (though 95% of quoll populations have gone extinct in the wake of the cane toad wave). The researchers reason that if there is a genetic basis to toad-smart behavior, it might be possible to introduce toad-smart individuals into populations that have not yet been overrun by cane toads.  These individuals with toad-smart genes would breed and spread their genes through their adopted population.  This strategy of targeted gene flow would give the recipient population the genetic variation needed, so that some individuals (those with toad-smart genes) would be more likely to survive the cane toad invasion.  Over time toad-smart behavior would spread throughout the population via natural selection.

Targeted gene flow requires the trait to be influenced by genes.  To test for a genetic basis to the toad-smart trait, Kelly and Phillips designed a common-garden experiment, capturing some quolls that had survived the cane toad invasion (toad-exposed), and others from regions that had not yet been exposed (toad-naïve).  At Territory Wildlife Park, Northern Territory, Australia, the researchers bred these quolls to create three lines of offspring: Toad-exposed x toad-exposed, toad-exposed x toad-naïve (hybrids), and toad-naïve x toad-naïve.  They raised these three lines under identical conditions at the park. Kelly and Phillips then asked, are there behavioral differences in how these three lines respond to cane toads?

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Northern quoll captured in Northern Territory, Australia. Credit: Ella Kelly.

The researchers set up two experiments.  First they asked, which would a quoll (that had never before experienced a cane toad) prefer to investigate if given the choice: a dead cane toad or a dead mouse? It turned out that the quoll offspring with two toad-exposed parents were somewhat more interested in mice than in cane toads.  The same was true for the hybrids.  However, the toads with two toad-naïve parents showed little preference.

Second, and more important, the researchers gave quolls from the three lines the opportunity to eat a toad leg (which does not have enough poison to harm the quoll). The results of this experiment were striking; offspring of toad-naïve parents were twice as likely to eat the toad leg than were offspring of toad-exposed parents, or hybrids with one parent of each type.

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Proportion of toad-naive (both parents toad-naive), hybrid and toad-exposed (both parents toad-exposed) quoll offspring that ate a cane toad leg. Error bar = +/- 1 SE.

Kelly and Phillips conclude that toad-smart behavior is a genetically-based trait that has been under strong natural selection in populations of quolls that survived the cane toad invasion.  Hybrid offspring behave similarly to the offspring of two toad-exposed parents, suggesting that toad-smart behavior has a dominance inheritance pattern. The researchers propose using targeted gene flow, in this case introducing toad-adapted individuals into populations prior to the arrival of cane toads. Recently, Kelly and Phillips released 54 offspring with toad-smart genetic backgrounds onto Indian Island, which is about 40 km from Darwin.  The island has a large cane toad population, so the researchers will follow the introduced quoll population to see whether it is genetically equipped to survive in the presence of the cane toad scourge.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Kelly, E. and Phillips, B. L. (2019), Targeted gene flow and rapid adaptation in an endangered marsupial. Conservation Biology, 33: 112-121. doi:10.1111/cobi.13149. Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.

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.

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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.

HaramFig1

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.

HaramFig2

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.

The complex life of the pea

As a behavioral ecologist, I’m spending a surprising amount of time reading and writing about plants these days.  It turns out that plants are amazingly complex and interactive; you just need to know where and how to look.  Today we will discuss the humble pea plant, how it is infected with a virus that is carried by an aphid that sucks its xylem, and how a herbivorous weevil fits into the whole system.   The virus is the pea enation mosaic virus (PEMV), which causes pea leaves to yellow and wither, and also creates enations (scaly tissue) to develop on a leaf’s undersides. The aphid vector (a vector is the organism that carries a disease) is Acrythosiphon pisum, while the herbivorous weevil is Sitona lineatus.

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Pea plant infected with pea enation mosaic virus. Credit Paul Chisholm.

David Crowder has been studying plant/insect interactions for many years, and knew that most researchers who studied interactions between plants and insect vectors focused their attention on the plants, insects and the disease, but did not consider how other species in the community might affect this relationship. Paul Chisholm was a PhD student in Crowder’s lab; and working with two other researchers, they explored whether S. lineatus, an abundant herbivore of peas, influenced viral transmission.  They expected that if the pea was first attacked by the weevil, it might be more susceptible to subsequent viral infection.  Conversely, if the pea was infected by the virus, it might be less able to chemically defend itself against subsequent herbivory by the weevil.

ChisholmFigAppendixBC

(Left) Pea aphids. Credit: Shipher Wu under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License. (Right) Very adult pea leaf weevils, Sitona lineatus. Credit: Gail Hampshire under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License

It is easy to visually distinguish between PEMV-infected and uninfected plants, so the researchers could assess whether infected plants tended to suffer more defoliation by weevils than did uninfected plants.  They visited 12 different fields in northern Washington and western Idaho, USA, and measured defoliation by counting the number of feeding notches left by the weevils after feeding on 3 – 10 infected pea plants and an equal number of nearby uninfected plants on each field (more feeding notches = more defoliation).  They discovered that PEMV-infected plants tended to suffer substantially higher herbivory than did uninfected plants

ChisholmFig1A

Herbivory (as measured by number of feeding notches) caused by weevils on paired uninfected (black bars) and PEMV-infected (blue bars) pea plants sampled from 12 different fields. Error bars for all figures represent 1 SE.

Given the correlation between herbivory and infection, Chisholm and his colleagues then explored whether (1) the weevil preferred to feed on infected plants, and/or whether (2) infective aphids preferred to feed on plants that had been damaged by herbivorous weevils.  Both questions were answered with behavioral choice assays done in a greenhouse. First, the researchers created two groups of pea plants.  The first group, sham infected, were fed on by aphids not carrying PEMV for 48 hours, while the second group of plants were fed on by PEMV-infected aphids for the same duration. Aphids were removed and PEMV infection developed within 15 days in the PEMV infected plants.  The researchers then set up one sham infected and one PEMV-infected plant in a test cage, and released two weevils equidistant from the plants, allowing them to feed for six days.  They discovered that aphids fed much more voraciously on the PEMV-infected plants.

ChisholmFig1B

Mean leaf area removed from sham infected and PEMV-infected pea plants.

For the second experiment, the researchers again created two types of plants: undamaged – no herbivory, and damaged – 48 hours of weevil herbivory.  Weevils were then removed, and one leaf from each plant was connected to each end of a tube, while still attached to each plant.

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Experimental setup with tube attached to one leaf of each experimental plant.  Aphids were introduced into the central tube. Credit Paul Chisholm. 

The researchers added either 25 infectious or 25 non-infectious aphids, and allowed them 3 hours to choose a leaf.  PEMV-infected aphids preferred damaged leaves, while uninfected aphids showed no preference.

ChisholmFig1C

PEMV-infected aphid preference for undamaged (no herbivory) or damaged (weevil herbivory) leaves.

Chisholm and his colleagues then turned their attention to whether weevil herbivory made pea plants more susceptible to PEMV infection.  In one experiment they allowed PEMV-infected aphids to feed on plants for 3 days, and then introduced 0, 1 or 3 weevils who fed on the plants for another 6 days.  They used a protein assay to estimate the PEMV-titer (concentration) of each plant and discovered that the plants that were exposed to greatest herbivory had the highest PEMV titer (see graph below).  In a second experiment the researchers allowed weevil herbivory before adding the aphids, and found no effect of prior herbivory on PEMV titer.

ChisholmFig2A

Relative PEMV-titer of infected leaves after they were subjected to herbivory by zero, one or three weevils for six days. different letters above bars indicate significant differences between treatments.

What causes these plant responses to challenges by PEMV and weevils?  The researchers discovered that levels of three important plant hormones increased either in response to PEMV infection, weevil herbivory or both.  At this point it is not clear how these different hormone levels interact to bring about the changes we’ve described.

The researchers conclude that weevil behavior has a profound influence on the interactions between aphids, the viruses they carry and the pea plants they feed on (and infect).  The weevil is not a vector for the virus, yet it affects the virus directly by altering plant behavior and physiology and indirectly by altering the behavior of the vector (the aphids).  PEMV outbreaks are more likely when weevils are abundant, as aphids prefer damaged plants, and feeding by weevils increased the PEMV titer in infected plants.  Crowder argues that interactions in which a non-vector species influences the relationship between a host and its vector (and the pathogen it carries) are probably extraordinarily common in crop systems.  So if we want to understand crop susceptibility to pathogens we need to cast a broad net and consider both the direct and indirect effects of a community of species that can influence how the crop responds to infection.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Chisholm, P. J., Sertsuvalkul, N. , Casteel, C. L. and Crowder, D. W. (2018), Reciprocal plant‐mediated interactions between a virus and a non‐vector herbivore. Ecology, 99: 2139-2144. doi:10.1002/ecy.2449. 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.

monardadidyma.jpg

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.

Antirrhinummajus

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-photo.jpg

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).

AdlerFig1

(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.

bluelobelia.png

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.

AdlerFig2

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.

Penstemondigitalis

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.

redtideCreditMarufish:FlickrIsahayaBay

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.

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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.

XuFig1

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).

XuFig3bd

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.

Decomposition: it’s who you are and where you are

“Follow the carbon” is a growing pastime of ecologists and environmental researchers worldwide. In the process of cellular respiration, organisms use carbon compounds to fuel their metabolic pathways, so having carbon around makes life possible.  Within ecosystems, following the carbon is equivalent to following how energy flows among the producers, consumers, detritivores and decomposers. In soils, decomposers play a central role in energy flow, but we might not appreciate their importance because many decomposers are tiny, and decomposition is very slow.  We are thrilled by a hawk subduing a rodent, but are less appreciative of a bacterium breaking down a lignin molecule, even though at their molecular heart, both processes are the same, in that complex carbon enters the organism and fuels cellular respiration.  However. from a global perspective, cellular respiration produces carbon dioxide as a waste product, which if allowed to escape the ecosystem, will increase the pool of atmospheric carbon dioxide thereby increasing the rate of global warming. So following the carbon is an ecological imperative.

As the world warms, trees and shrubs are colonizing regions that previously were inaccessible to them. In northern Sweden, mountain birch forests (Betula pubescens) and birch shrubs (Betula nana) are advancing into the tundra, replacing the heath that is dominated by the crowberry, Empetrum nigrum. As he began his PhD studies, Thomas Parker became interested in the general question of how decomposition changes as trees and shrubs expand further north in the Arctic. On his first trip to a field site in northern Sweden he noticed that the areas of forest and shrubs produced a lot of leaf litter in autumn yet there was no significant accumulation of this litter the following year. He wondered how the litter decomposed, and how this process might change as birch overtook the crowberry.

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One of the study sides in autumn: mountain birch forest (yellow) in the background, dwarf birch (red) on the left and crowberry on the right. Credit: Tom Parker.

Several factors can affect leaf litter decomposition in northern climes.  First, depending on what they are made of, different species of leaves will decompose at different rates.  Second, different types of microorganisms present will target different types of leaves with varying degrees of efficiency.  Lastly, the abiotic environment may play a role; for example, due to shade and creation of discrete microenvironments, forests have deeper snowpack, keeping soils warmer in winter and potentially elevating decomposer cellular respiration rates. Working with several other researchers, Parker tested the following three hypotheses: (1) litter from the more productive vegetation types will decompose more quickly, (2) all types of litter decompose more quickly in forest and shrub environments, and (3) deep winter snow (in forest and shrub environments) increase litter decomposition compared to heath environments.

To test these hypotheses, Parker and his colleagues established 12 transects that transitioned from forest to shrub to heath. Along each transect, they set up three 2 m2 plots – one each in the forest, shrub, and heath – 36 plots in all. In September of 2012, the researchers collected fresh leaf littler from mountain birch, shrub birch and crowberry, which they sorted, dried and placed into 7X7 cm. polyester mesh bags.  They placed six litter bags of each species at each of the 36 plots, and then harvested these bags periodically over the next three years. Bags were securely attached to the ground so that small decomposers could get in, but the researchers had to choose a relatively small mesh diameter to make sure they successfully enclosed the tiny crowberry leaves. This restricted access to some of the larger decomposers.

ParkerLitterBags

Some litter bags attached to the soil surface at the beginning of the experiment. Credit: Tom Parker.

To test for the effect of snow depth, the researchers also set up snow fences on nearby heath sites.  These fences accumulated blowing and drifting snow, creating a snowpack comparable to that in nearby forest and shrub plots.

Parker and his colleagues found that B. pubescens leaves decomposed most rapidly and E. nigrum leases decomposed most slowly.  In addition, leaf litter decomposed fastest in the forest and most slowly in the heath.  Lastly, snow depth did not  influence decomposition rate.

ParkerEcologyFig1

(Left graph) Decomposition rates of E. nigrum, B. nana and B. pubescens in heath, shrub and forest. (Right graph) Decomposition rates of E. nigrum, B. nana and B. pubescens in heath under three different snow depths simulating snow accumulation at different vegetation types: Heath (control), + Snow (Shrub) and ++ Snow (Forest) . Error bars are 1 SE.

B. pubescens in forest and shrub lost the greatest amount (almost 50%) of mass over the three years of the study, while E. nigrum in heath lost the least (less than 30%).  However, B. pubescens decomposed much more rapidly in the forest than in the shrub between days 365 and 641. The bottom graphs below show that snow fences had no significant effect on decomposition.

ParkerEcologyFig2

Percentage of litter mass remaining (a, d) E. nigrum, (b, e) B. nana, (c, f) B. pubescens in heath, shrub, or forest. Top graphs (a, b, c) are natural transects, while the bottom graphs (d, e, f) represent heath tundra under three different snow depths simulating snow accumulation at different vegetation types: Heath (control), + Snow (Shrub) and ++ Snow (Forest) . Error bars represent are 1SE. Shaded areas on the x-axis indicate the snow covered season in the first two years of the study.

Why do mountain birch leaves decompose so much more than do crowberry leaves?  The researchers chemically analyzed both species and discovered that birch leaves had 1.7 times more carbohydrate than did crowberry, while crowberry had 4.9 times more lipids than did birch. Their chemical analysis showed much of birch’s rapid early decomposition was a result of rapid carbohydrate breakdown. In contrast, crowberry’s slow decomposition resulted from its high lipid content being relatively resistant to the actions of decomposers.

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Researchers (Parker right, Subke left) harvesting soils and litter in the tundra. Credit: Jens-Arne Subke.

Parker and his colleagues did discover that decomposition was fastest in the forest independent of litter type. Forest soils are rich in brown-rot fungi, which are known to target the carbohydrates (primarily cellulose) that are so abundant in mountain birch leaves.  The researchers propose that a history of high cellulose litter content has selected for a biochemical environment that efficiently breaks down cellulose-rich leaves. Once the brown-rot fungi and their allies have done much of the initial breakdown, another class of fungi (ectomycorrhizal fungi) kicks into action and metabolizes (and decomposes) the more complex organic molecules.

The result of all this decomposition in the forest, but not the heath, is that tundra heath stores much more organic compounds than does the adjacent forest (which loses stored organic compounds to decomposers).  As forests continue their relentless march northward replacing the heath, it is very likely that they will introduce their efficient army of decomposers to the former heathlands.  These decomposers will feast on the vast supply of stored organic carbon compounds, release large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will further exacerbate global warming. This is one of several positive feedbacks loops expected to destabilize global climate systems in the coming years.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Parker, T. C., Sanderman, J., Holden, R. D., Blume‐Werry, G., Sjögersten, S., Large, D., Castro‐Díaz, M., Street, L. E., Subke, J. and Wookey, P. A. (2018), Exploring drivers of litter decomposition in a greening Arctic: results from a transplant experiment across a treeline. Ecology, 99: 2284-2294. doi:10.1002/ecy.2442. 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.