Life and death in a diminutive ecosystem

Ecosystems are big things, as they encompass an entire community of organisms and the nonliving factors (such as nutrients and water) that interact with the community. So we’re accustomed to thinking about the Serengeti as an ecosystem, as it includes (among many things) the large animals, such as lions, wildebeest and buffalo that live there, the animals and plants they eat, and the soils and nutrients that feed these plants.

But ecosystems can also be tiny. Let’s think about an individual tank bromeliad, Quesnelia arvensis, which can hold up to 3 liters of water in tanks formed where individual leaves come together. Gustavo Romero has identified over 140 species of invertebrates that live within these natural tanks, including large predators such as damselfly and tabanid larvae, and many species of smaller predators (mesopredators) including a diverse group of chironomid midges. The larger predators eat the smaller predators, while predators of both sizes eat a very diverse group of detritivores – animals that feed on the remains of dead organisms. The terrestrial fauna in the immediate vicinity are spiders. Visitors from the surrounding forest ecosystem include 12 bird species and 6 frog species, which forage on larvae within the bromeliads.

Cantorchilus longirostris on bromeliad (Quesnelia arvensis) leaf

Long-billed marsh wren perches on the tip of bromeliad leaf.  This bird can use its long beak to probe for invertebrates living within the bromeliad tank. Credit: Crasso Paulo Bosco Breviglieri

Crasso Paulo Bosco Breviglieri and his colleagues had previously done research demonstrating how insectivorous birds hanging out near bromeliads inhibited dragonflies from ovipositing (laying eggs) within the bromeliad tank. As these birds were much larger than the animals living within the tanks, Breviglieri and Romero hypothesized that the birds would focus on eating the largest items offered to them by this ecosystem. By removing the largest items (the top predators), birds increase the biomass of the prey of these top predators, including detritivores. Thus bird predation should indirectly increase decomposition rate and nutrient availability.

Breviglieri food web

Effects of birds and frogs on bromeliad trophic cascades. Solid arrows are direct effects and dashed arrows are indirect effects (for example frogs eat top predators, thereby indirectly increasing mesopredators).  Wider arrows are stronger effects.

Trophic cascades, a process in which the effects of consumption within an ecosystem cascade down from higher to lower feeding levels, can be difficult to study. The problem is that one favorite approach is to remove predators (the top trophic level) and see if prey abundance increases while the food of these prey decreases, and so on. This is extremely challenging when top predators are lions or wolves and ecosystem area encompasses thousands of kilometers, but much easier when predators are birds or frogs, and each ecosystem is a tank bromeliad. Simply put a cage over a tank bromeliad and presto!, no birds or frogs can get in.

Dr. Crasso Paulo B. Breviglieri building the cages that isolated the bromeliads

Breviglieri with a caged bromeliad. Credit: Jennifer Tezuka

Breviglieri and Romero collected 30 tank bromeliads from the forest, and meticulously cleaned each plant to remove all organisms and organic matter. They filtered and homogenized the water from the bromeliads, and returned 1 liter of water to each plant so that each plant began the experiment with the same quantity of water and microorganisms. The researchers then added equal numbers of organisms to each bromeliad from all of the trophic levels, ranging from apex predators such as damselflies down to detritivores, such as shredders, which eat dead plant leaves and begin the break down process. They also added 10 leaves to each tank for detritivore consumption and further decomposition.

For their experiment, Breviglieri and Romero had three different treatments, with 10 bromeliads per treatment: (1) caged, with each bromeliad enclosed within a steel mesh that allowed insects through but restricted birds and frogs, (2) open-cage control, with each bromeliad only partially enclosed so predators had free access, (3) uncaged control. They returned these to the field at 40 meter intervals, and allowed 155 days to pass.

Larva of zygoptera on bromeliad (Quesnelia arvensis)leaf

Bromeliad with a damselfly larva (top predator) that for unknown reasons has climbed out of the tank onto a leaf.  A bird flew to a nearby perch, but the alert damselfly dove back down into the tank, earning a 9.6 from the judges. Credit: Crasso Paulo Bosco Breviglieri

After 155 days, Breviglieri and Romero collected all of the bromeliads, and identified, counted and weighed (dry weight) all of the organisms. They discovered that the dry mass of invertebrates was much greater in the caged treatments than either control (Figure A). The abundance of apex predators (damselflies and tabanids) did not increase; but the size of individuals increased dramatically (Figure B). Mesopredators increased in abundance (Figure C), while shredder abundance declined sharply (Figure D). Shredder larvae forage on sediment and are a favorite damselfly food item, so it is not surprising that shredders declined, given the sharp increase in damselfly size, and presumably appetite.


Lower shredder abundance in the caged bromeliads led to a sharp decline in decomposition rates (left graph below). In theory, this should make fewer nutrients available to the bromeliads and reduce bromeliad growth. In contrast to expectations, caged bromeliads actually grew more leaves (right graph below), despite the reduction in decomposition rates. Breviglieri and Romero remind us that the greater mass of larvae were producing a much greater mass of fecal matter and prey carcasses, both of which are very nutrient rich. Also, higher predation rates can cause some insects to mature and leave their tank at a smaller size, consuming fewer nutrients while in the larval form, and leaving more nutrients for each plant to use for its own growth.


Decomposition rate measured as detrital mass lost (left graph), and growth rate measured as new leaves grown by the bromeliads (right graph), for caged, open-caged and uncaged controls.

Clearly, there are many unanswered questions about this trophic cascade. For example, why don’t the number of top predators increase in abundance when birds and frogs are excluded? When I asked him this question, Breviglieri suggested that two processes could explain this finding. First, top predators eat smaller larvae of their own species. Second, female insects can chemically sense the presence of predators in these bromeliads, and refrain from ovipositing in plants hosting large predators.

Perhaps most important, can we extend the conclusions from these small ecosystems to larger ecosystems? In nature there are many analogous ecosystems in which predators have strategies for crossing boundaries and influencing ecosystem processes. For example, many birds dive into lakes searching for fish and invertebrates. Moving in the opposite direction, banded-archerfish spit out water jets to dislodge invertebrates from adjacent vegetation into the water, and crocodiles leave rivers to grab and consume convenient gnus. In these systems, as in bromeliads, predators cross ecosystem borders to feed, and it is important for us to understand if there are any general patterns in how these visitors from the outside affect ecosystem functioning.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Breviglieri, Crasso Paulo Bosco, and Gustavo Q. Romero. 2017. Terrestrial vertebrate predators drive the structure and functioning of aquatic food webs. Ecology. doi:10.1002/ecy.1881.  It was published online on June 12, and should appear shortly in print. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Limpet larvae and their fantastic voyage

As he began his PhD program, Takuya Yahagi was puzzled by some laboratory findings. Juvenile red blood limpets, Shinkailepas myojinensis, seemed to survive and grow extraordinarily well at temperatures between 15-25° C. Adult limpets live in deep sea vent communities, where temperatures generally range between 6-11° C.

limpet photo

Adult Shinkailepas myojinensis.  These are approximately 6 mm in length. Credit: Takuya Yahagi.

Yahagi and his colleagues wondered why limpets are making babies that survive and grow at much higher temperatures than they are likely to experience after hatching.

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 10.48.26 AM

Deep sea hydrothermal vent community at 795 meters depth at Myojinsho Caldera in the northwest Pacific. White patches on the rocks are vast communities of chemosynthetic bacteria which are being grazed by purple/pinkish limpets. You can also see the white feathery feeding legs of a barnacle population in the upper portion of the photo. Credit: JAMSTEC

Yahagi reasoned that perhaps, in the natural world, the limpet juveniles live in different (warmer) environments than do their parents. If they migrated closer to the sea surface, their world would be somewhat warmer. But limpet babies are microscopic, so capturing them near the sea surface (and knowing that you had captured them!) is very challenging. Working with three other researchers, Yahagi decided to collect indirect evidence to test the hypothesis that baby limpets migrate to the surface where they feed and grow before returning to the ocean depths.


Larval S. myojinensis limpet 156 days after hatching. sh=shell, f =foot, e=eye, vl=velar lobe.

Initially, the researchers needed to determine what temperatures these growing limpets preferred. With the help of a remotely operated submarine, they collected adult limpets laden with egg capsules, and placed newly hatched larvae into separate containers under different conditions. Some larvae were fed and raised at one of six different temperatures: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30° C. Other larvae were starved at 5, 15 or 25° C to see how long they survived at different temperatures. If the larvae were migrating upwards to warmer waters, it was important to see how long they could survive until they arrived at the richer food sources near the surface.

Starved larvae survived up to 150 days at the lowest temperature, and for more than three weeks at 25° C, which provided ample time for upward migration (even at very mellow baby limpet swimming speeds). Fed larvae grew much more quickly at warmer temperatures, with best growth at 25° C, and no growth at 5-10° C, which is the approximate temperature at hydrothermal vents.. Larvae initially grew quickly at 30° C, but long term exposure to that temperature killed them.


Growth (shell length) of fed larvae at different temperatures.

These temperature profiles corresponded to temperatures at the sea surface down to about 100 meters, which ranged between 19-28° C. This correspondence supported the hypothesis that juveniles migrated upwards in the water column after hatching. But could Yahagi and his colleagues find any direct evidence for this vertical migration? To answer this question, they video-recorded new hatchlings in a clear plastic bath, and measured how fast these limpets swam, and what direction they preferred. They discovered that new hatchlings constantly swam upward in their test bath, and swimming speed was considerably faster at warmer temperatures.

The sea surface is a wonderful place to find food, because sunlight is abundant, so there are abundant phytoplankton to satisfy even the most voracious juvenile limpets. But sea surfaces also have very strong currents which can whisk juvenile limpets hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. The upshot is that vertical migration and wide dispersal of juveniles by ocean currents can introduce new genes into far-away limpet populations.

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A hot vent animal community at 700 meters depth at Minami-Ensei Knoll in the northwest Pacific. Prevalent groups include lobsters (white), two species of shrimp, mussels and two different limpet species. Credit: JAMSTEC.

Gene flow – the movement of genes from one population to another – has some important genetic impacts. Without gene flow, two populations that are separated from each other can become genetically distinct. But the mixing of genes from long-distance dispersal can prevent this from occurring. The researchers compared 1218 base pairs of the COI gene from 77 adult limpets that were collected from four different sites which were separated, in some cases, by more than 1000 kilometers. In support of the gene flow hypothesis they found no evidence of any genetic differentiation among the four populations.

Yahagi Fig1

Hydrothermal vent fields in the northwest Pacific Ocean.  Black squares are limpet collection sites for this study.  Notice the vast distances separating these populations. 

Gene flow requires long distance dispersal, and the adult limpets travel very little along the sea floor. This finding of no genetic differentiation among the geographically separated populations supports the hypothesis that the juveniles migrate upwards, feed on abundant phytoplankton, and are carried to new distant environments. There, they mature and settle into new ocean vent communities where they can feed on the superabundant chemosynthetic bacteria associated with the ocean vents. But we still don’t know how limpets find a new ocean vent community – do they migrate, checking out possible vent habitats, while they are still juveniles and still capable of swimming? Do they have sense organs that pick up environmental cues such as hydrogen sulfide content, water temperature, turbulence or noise from vent emissions, to help them complete their fantastic ocean voyage?

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Yahagi, Takuya, Hiromi Kayama Watanabe, Shigeaki Kojima, and Yasunori Kano. 2017. Do larvae from deep‐sea hydrothermal vents disperse in surface waters? Ecology 98: 1524-1534Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Frogs face fatal fungal foes

Pathogens are organisms that cause disease, and like all organisms, they obey evolutionary principles. Pathogens that survive and reproduce successfully in a particular environment will have more offspring than those that are less successful, thereby passing on those traits that promote successful reproduction to future generations. The problem is that many pathogens change their environment in a way that makes their environment less hospitable for their own survival or reproduction. For example, the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) causes chytridiomycosis in its amphibian host, which may severely reduce the host population size to the point where few individuals survive. If the host population goes extinct, then there are no hosts for the fungal offspring to infect.

Scheele fungal spore

Scanning electron micrograph of Batrachochytrium denbdrobatidis spore. Credit: Dr. Alex Hyatt, CSIRO Livestock Industries’ Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

Fortunately for Bd, but unfortunately for amphibians, there are several ways out of this conundrum. One approach is a reduction in pathogenicity so that a pathogen’s host species is able to tolerate the infection (and of course, natural selection will at the same time favor an increase in the host species’ tolerance for the pathogen). A second approach is to broadcast a wide net by infecting many different species. That way if one host species goes extinct, there are always many other species to infect. Bd infects over 500 species of amphibians, and has been implicated in the extinction of over 100 amphibian species, and the severe decline of an additional 100 species.

Ben Scheele and his colleagues wanted to know why the endangered northern corroboree frog, Pseudophryne pengilleyi, was declining in southeastern Australia. Several previous studies showed that many corroboree frog populations declined or went extinct in that region over the past 20 years, while the abundant common eastern froglet, Crinia signifera, showed no signs of decline over the same time period. Pilot studies showed that eastern froglets were heavily and commonly infected with Bd. The researchers reasoned that eastern froglets could be acting as a reservoir for Bd, so that corroboree frog populations are being decimated by association with Bd-infected eastern froglets.

Female Ppen copy Hunter

Female Pseudophryne pengilleyi. Credit: David Hunter.

Preliminary surveys indicated that the decline of corroboree frogs was not uniform across the study site; in fact there were some newly discovered populations that were doing very well. The researchers defined three types of sites in their research area. Absent sites (40 in total) had corroboree frogs in 1998, but the population went extinct by 2012. Declined sites (17 in total) had a greater than 80% decrease in abundance since 2000. New sites (25 in total) were newly discovered since 2012, and had much higher population densities than declined sites.


Study area in southeastern Australia, showing locations of Absent, Declined and New sites.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to visually distinguish an infected frog from an uninfected frog, at least until the few hours before death. But the researchers needed to be able to tell if a frog had chytridiomycosis. So they collected skin swabs from the frogs during the breeding season – only working at night to ensure cool humid conditions which minimized frog stress. They then did real time PCR on these samples to quantify the intensity of Bd infection.

Scheele and his colleagues had three important questions they were now prepared to answer. First, how prevalent is Bd in these two species? They found that infection rate was much higher in eastern froglets (79.4%) than in corroboree frogs (27.3%). The intensity of infection (measured by the number of fungal spores) was also much greater in eastern froglets than in corroboree frogs.

Second, do eastern froglets act as a reservoir for Bd, leading to infection and decline of corroboree frog populations? As we discussed earlier, the two species coexist at some sites, but not at others. If eastern froglets act as a reservoir for Bd, we would expect corroboree frogs to have higher infection rates at sites they share with eastern froglets, than they do at sites without eastern froglets. In support of this prediction, Bd prevalence in corroboree frogs was 41.4% at sites with eastern froglets, but only 2.6% at sites with no eastern froglets.

crinia and pengilleyi 3

C. signifera (left) and P. pengilleyi spending quality time together in a P. pengilleyi nest. Credit: David Hunter.

Finally, the researchers want to identify conditions that will promote corroboree frog recovery. They approached this quantitatively by modeling the probability of a site being classified as Absent, Declined or New, in relation to eastern froglet abundance. Based on their survey data of 81 sites, those sites with the highest eastern froglet abundance are most likely to be classified as Absent (corroboree frog extinction), while sites with very few eastern froglets are most likely to be classified as New (thriving corroboree frog populations).


Probability of a site being classified as Absent, Declined or New, based on eastern froglet abundance. Data are log transformed. Dashed lines are 95% confidence intervals.

Scheele and his colleagues conclude that eastern froglets are a reservoir host for Bd, and have played a major role in the decline in corroboree frog populations. The researchers point out that, in general, areas lacking reservoir hosts may provide endangered species with refugia from infectious disease. For managing endangered species, conservation biologists should carefully monitor sites for the presence of reservoir hosts so they don’t reintroduce rare and endangered animals into locations where they will be attacked and killed by pathogens.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Scheele, Ben C., David A. Hunter, Laura A. Brannelly, Lee F. Skerratt, and Don A. Driscoll. “Reservoir‐host amplification of disease impact in an endangered amphibian.” Conservation Biology 31, no. 3 (2017): 592-600. Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.

Fires foster biological diversity on the African savanna

As an ecology student back in days of yore, I was introduced to the classic mutualism between ants and swollen-thorn acacia trees. In this mutually beneficial relationship, ants protect acacia trees by biting and projecting very smelly substances at hungry herbivores, and by pruning encroaching branches of plant competitors. In return for these services, acacia trees provide the ants with homes in the form of swollen thorns, and in some cases also provide food for their defenders.


Swollen thorns of Acacia drepanlobium occupied by C. nigriceps. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

I always assumed there were limits to what these ants could do. I knew that elephants were a constant problem for trees trying to get established on the African savanna. I figured, wrongly, that ants could not do much to counter a determined thick-skinned elephant. But as Ryan Sensenig describes, ants will swarm any intruding elephant, rushing into the elephant’s very sensitive trunk and mouth, biting it and, in some cases, exuding a chemical compound that is very offensive to an elephant’s keen sense of smell. So don’t mess with these ants if you can help it!


The Laikipia Plateau has one of the few growing elephant populations in East Africa. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

Fires play an important role in savanna ecosystems, killing many trees before they can get established, and creating a mosaic of burned and unburned areas which vary in grass quality and quantity, and in the abundance of acacia trees (and other species as well). Recently burned grasslands tend to be lower in grass abundance and higher in grass nutrient levels. In a previous study of controlled burns, Sensenig and his colleagues showed that larger animals, such as elephants, tended to graze in unburned areas, which had more grass – albeit of lower quality. Returning seven years after the burn, he was surprised to find that elephants, which eat both trees and grass, had shifted to the burned sites in preference to unburned sites. He thus wondered whether fire was having an impact on the ant-acacia mutualisms that defend acacias from elephants and other large herbivores.


Sunset strikes an Acacia xanthophloea on Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

Ants do not share trees. In Mpala Research Centre in the Laikipia Plateau of Kenya, there are four mutually-exclusive species of ants that live in Acacia drepanolobium trees: Crematogaster sjostedti, C. mimosae, C. nigriceps, and Tetraponera penzigi.

Sensenig and his colleagues wanted to know whether the controlled burns had a long-lasting effect on ant species distribution on acacia trees. The researchers surveyed 12 plots that had been burned seven years previously and an equal number of unburned plots to see how burns affected which ant species were present.


Goshen College research students estimate ant densities on Acacia drepanolobium trees in the Kenya Longterm Exclosure Experiment. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

They found that C. nigriceps was more common in acacias from burned areas while the other three species were more common in trees from unburned areas.


Why were there more C. nigriceps ants in previously burned areas? One explanation is that perhaps C. nigriceps is better at avoiding getting burned by fire, or else is better at recolonizing after a fire. To look for species difference in response to fire, the researchers simulated fires by burning elephant dung and dried grass in 3-gallon metal buckets, creating a small sustained smoke source. They stationed observers every 50 meters along a 500 meter transect for the first experiment, and a 1.8 km transect for the second experiment. They then measured ant-evacuation rate by counting the number of ants moving down the trunk. There were some very pronounced differences, with C. nigriceps having the highest evacuation rate, C. mimosae also showing a strong smoke response, and the other two species showing little evidence of any response.


Evacuation rate for each species in response to smoke.

C. mimosae generally prevails when it battles a colony of C. nigriceps. These results indicate that the subordinate C. nigriceps is able to maintain its presence in the community, in part, by taking advantage of its superior performance when it encounters a fire. The researchers also found some evidence that C. nigriceps is better at recolonizing after a fire than is C. mimosae. So despite being the subordinate species, C. nigriceps is abundant in this ecosystem.

Returning to those elephants, the researchers describe one final experiment in which some plots had a series of fences that excluded herbivores, while other plots were open to herbivores, including elephants.


In this experiment, as well, there were burned and unburned plots. In general, there were more ants present when herbivores were present, as the trees invested more in swollen thorns and in ant food (in the form of nectar) to attract protective ants. In addition, ants were more abundant in unburned plots than in plots that had been previously burned, with the exception of C. nigriceps when herbivores were excluded.

Ecologists have long known that fire maintains savanna ecosystems by preventing the grasslands from being overgrown by trees. This study shows that fires shift ant community structure in favor of the subordinate ant species (C. nigriceps), resulting in a higher diversity of ant species overall. The researchers suggest that if fires become more common in savannas, elephants may become more attracted to acacias that harbor a reduced (or nonexistent) cast of defenders, which could lead to a further reduction in the abundance of acacia trees and their mutualistic ants.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Sensenig, R. L., Kimuyu, D. K., Ruiz Guajardo, J. C., Veblen, K. E., Riginos, C., & Young, T. P. (2017). Fire disturbance disrupts an acacia ant–plant mutualism in favor of a subordinate ant species. Ecology, 98(5), 1455-1464.Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Nitrogen nurses

Alfred Lord Tennyson puzzled over the conflict between love as a foundation of Christianity, and the apparent violence of the natural world.

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’ nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

The good poet would be relieved to learn that modern ecologists have uncovered a softer, gentler side of the natural world – facilitative interactions, in which one species (the facilitator) helps out a second species. In many, but not all, cases, the second species also helps out the first species. Ecologists describe these mutually-beneficial interactions as mutualisms. As an example, Mimosa luisana is a mutualist with Rhizobium bacteria, providing the bacteria with root nodules to live in and carbohydrates as an energy source, while receiving ammonia (NH3) that the bacteria fix (convert) from atmospheric N2. A second type of mutualism, a mycorrhizal association, is a very common facilitative interaction between plants and fungi, which grow alongside or within the plant roots. In many mycorrhizal associations, the plant provides carbohydrates to the fungi, which import and share nutrients and water.

Mimosa plant

Mimosa luisana. Credit: Leticia Soriano Flores, algunos derechos reservados (CC BY-NC)

Alicia Montesinos-Navarro and her colleagues, and researchers before them, noticed that in arid and semi-arid environments, plant-plant facilitation was most common between two plant species that were structurally and functionally very distinct, and that tended to be very distantly related to each other. In particular, M. luisana tends to associate with many different species of plants, including many cacti that look nothing like it, and are very distantly related. M. luisana is called a nurse plant, because other species tend to grow under its branches, which shade the soil and reduce water loss from evaporation. Recent work by Montesinos-Navarro and her colleagues showed another benefit of nursing – some plants receive nitrogen from these nurse plants via the network of mycorrhizal fungi.

Traditionally, ecologists have argued that associations between distantly-related plants occur because the plants have very different ecological niches, using different resources in different ways, so they are not competing with each other. Montesinos-Navarro and her colleagues argue that a second process might be important in this and other systems. Close relatives of M. luisana might tend to have high nitrogen levels and thus not benefit from nitrogen transfer from the nurse plant, while more distantly-related plants might tend to have lower nitrogen levels and thus benefit from any nitrogen arriving from M. luisana. They explored this hypothesis in the semi-arid Valley of Zapotitlan in the state of Puebla, Mexico.


Study site dominated by the columnar cactus Neobuxbaimia tetezo, Credit: Alicia Montesinos-Navarro.

Measuring nitrogen transfer from the nurse plant to the recipient is not the world’s easiest task. Fortunately there is a rare form or isotope of nitrogen, 15N, which can be distinguished from the more common 14N. The researchers soaked M. luisana leaves in urea that was made up of primarily 15N, and the leaves took up the urea. Consequently, any exported nitrogen would contain a disproportionately high concentration of 15N, resulting in high 15N levels in the recipient plant. They then measured 15N levels in 14 different species of plants that used M. luisana as their nurse. The researchers were able to test two hypotheses. First, they could see whether close relatives to M. luisana tended to have higher N-levels than more distantly related species. Second they could see whether distant relatives tended to receive more nitrogen from nurse plants than did close relatives.


Mimosa luisana branch taking up 15N-labeled urea. Credit: Alicia Montesinos-Navarro.

The graph below summarizes the results. The y-axis measures how much the 15N level in the facilitated species increased by the end of the experiment (15 days). The x-axis measures the evolutionary relationship between M. luisana and the facilitated species – more precisely how long ago the two species shared a common ancestor. Lastly, the size of the dot measures the initial difference in leaf N-levels between M. luisana and the facilitated plant.

Ecology Fig 2

Influence of evolutionary relationship between M. luisana and the facilitated species (x- axis) and nitrogen gradient – the initial difference in nitrogen levels between the two species (size of dots) on the amount of nitrogen imported by the facilitated species.

Several trends are evident. First, close relatives of M. luisana tended to have similar leaf nitrogen values to M. luisana (medium sized dots), while distant relatives tended to have much less nitrogen than M. luisana (largest dots). Second, the most distant relatives tended to have the greatest increase in their 15N levels, which indicates that they received the greatest nitrogen export from their nurses.

One question is how the nitrogen is transported. Montesinos-Navarro and her colleagues describe how they treated soil with a fungicide, presumably killing the mycorrhizae, which resulted in a substantial reduction in nitrogen transport. This suggests that the mycorrhizal network is important for nitrogen transport. But more pressing is what do the nurse plants get out of the relationship. The researchers suggest that the recipient plants may provide M. luisana with either water or phosphorus, both of which may be in short supply in arid environments.

This study indicates that we need to look beyond traditional niche theory, and may need to  dig deeper to understand the structure of plant communities, and how facilitative interactions can explain the coexistence of very distantly related plants.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is MontesinosNavarro, A., Verdú, M., Querejeta, J. I., & ValienteBanuet, A. (2017). Nurse plants transfer more nitrogen to distantly related species. Ecology, 98(5), 1300-1310. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Spotted salamander performance per polymorphism persistence

His first winter at the University of Mississippi Field Station, Matt Pintar was wading through some ponds where he noticed a large number of egg masses. Clear jelly surrounded most of these egg masses, but a whitish jelly encased some of them. These egg masses were produced by the spotted salamander, Abystoma maculatum, which immediately made Pintar wonder why these differences exist within this species. Biologists use the term “polymorphism” to describe a situation like this, in which two or more forms (poly = multiple, morph = form) exist within a population.


White egg mass (left) and clear egg mass (right). Credit: Matt Pintar

Could it simply be random chance that there were two egg mass morphs? Or was one morph better than the other in getting fertilized by the appropriate sperm, or in keeping the eggs together? Alternatively, perhaps one morph was better at providing nutrients or protecting against predators. The puzzle is that if one morph was superior to the other, then that morph would be favored by natural selection, should outcompete the other, and ultimately cause the second morph to go extinct. So why did both morphs persist in this population of spotted salamanders?


Adult male spotted salamander. Credit Matt Pintar

Pintar embryos

Recently hatched larvae. Credit Matt Pintar.

Pintar and his colleague Willliam Resetarits Jr. thought it most likely that the polymorphism was a chance event that provided no benefit to the salamanders. But they did consider the alternative that one morph might be better in some conditions, while the other morph was better in other conditions. Surveys done about 25 years ago suggested that the polymorphism might be connected to differences in water chemistry, so Pintar and Resetarits decided to explore this possible link with a combination of observations of natural ponds and field experiments on artificial ponds.

Pintar ponds

Ponds at the University of Mississippi Field Station. Credit Matt Pintar.

Nutrient levels of ponds at the field station are influenced by two major factors: the type of surrounding habitat and the duration of time each pond holds water over the course of the year (the hydroperiod). Ponds surrounded by trees, as opposed to grass, have higher nutrient levels courtesy of tree leaves that fall into the ponds and leach out their nutrients. Many of these ponds dry out in the summer, so ponds with a longer hydroperiod will have more time to receive and leach nutrients from organic matter.

Ecologists often use water conductivity as a general measure of pond nutrient levels. Ponds with high conductivity have higher nutrient levels than ponds with low conductivity. Pintar and Resetarits sampled the water from 55 ponds and counted the number of white and clear egg masses from 40 ponds that had egg masses in 2015 and 2016. They found a striking relationship between conductivity and egg mass morph. White egg masses were much more common in low-nutrient (low conductivity) ponds.


Proportion of white egg masses in relation to water conductivity (a measure of nutrient level)

The researchers further explored this relationship by setting up artificial ponds that contained either low or high nutrient levels (obtained by putting leaf litter into some of the pools), and inoculating each pond with both white and clear egg masses. Pintar and Resetarits made sure that larvae were not mixed up once they hatched. They then measured the effects of both nutrient levels and morph on many variables associated with growth and development in these artificial ponds.


Some of the artificial ponds used for controlled experiments on the effects of nutrient levels. Credit: Matt Pintar.

In general, eggs from white masses had a significantly higher rate of hatching (about 80%) at both nutrient levels than did eggs from clear masses (about 60%). But eggs from white masses took longer to hatch (Figure (c) below). Importantly, larvae from white masses tended to grow better under low-nutrient conditions than did larvae from clear masses. In contrast, larvae from clear masses grew better under high-nutrient conditions than did larvae from white masses (Figures (d, e, f) below).


The relationship between nutrient level and (c) days to hatching, (d) snout-vent length (the distance between the tip of the snout and the cloacal opening), (e) total length and (f) body mass.

These findings indicate that the polymorphism is advantageous in environments with considerable variation in nutrient levels. The white morph tends to do well at low nutrient levels, while the clear morph does better at higher nutrient levels. Pintar and Resetarits suggest that these differences in growth and development are likely to translate to higher adult survival and reproductive rates. The researchers used population modeling to demonstrate that under realistic conditions in which some individuals migrate from one pond to another, both morphs will persist indefinitely in ponds of varying nutrient levels.

We still don’t know why the two morphs perform differently under these different conditions. We do know that the outer jelly layer of white egg masses have white crystals made of proteins that are not water soluble, while the outer jelly layer of clear egg masses have smaller water soluble proteins. Pintar speculates that the firmer consistency of white egg masses could cause them to degrade more slowly and to retain their constituent nutrients more effectively than do the clear morphs.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Pintar, Matthew R., and William J. Resetarits Jr. “Persistence of an egg mass polymorphism in Ambystoma maculatum: differential performance under high and low nutrients.” Ecology (2017). The print version will probably come out in May or June of this year. Meanwhile, you can access it here. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.