Invading hippos

Jonathan Shurin was studying declining water quality in Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake, when he learned about a local invasion of the common hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibius.  Four hippos were imported to Colombia by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar to populate his private zoo.  Following Escobar’s shooting death in 1993, the zoo fell into disrepair and the hippos wandered off free.  The population now numbers between 65-80, and breeding individuals have been seen 150 km from the zoo.


Hippos wallow in a lake framed by cattle egrits. Credit J. Shurin

Common hippos are native to central and southern Africa; as their scientific name implies they divide their existence between land (mostly at night) and water (keeping cool during the day).  These are huge animals, weighing up to 1500 kg and capable of running a surprising 30 kg/hr.  Apparently it is very easy to annoy a hippo.  From an ecosystem standpoint, hippos in their native Africa have been shown to have a strong impact on ecosystems by grazing on land at night and then releasing processed nutrients into lakes during the day.  Their influence is greatest during the dry season when they’re concentrated at high densities.  Jonathan Shurin and his colleagues wanted to know whether hippos were having a discernable effect on lakes and rivers in Colombia.  Given an expectation that the hippo population will continue to grow, this question has important management implications.


A grazing hippo. Credit: J. Shurin

The researchers sampled 14 small lakes at Hacienda Napoles in Antioquia, Columbia during the wet season and the dry season.  All lakes were sampled from shore because entering a lake containing hippos can be hazardous to a researcher’s health.peligrohippo

Two lakes were found to contain hippos, while the other 12 did not (though some had been observed with hippos on other occasions).  The analysis compared the two lakes with hippos to the 12 lakes without hippos for nutrients, conductivity, pH, temperature and chlorohyll-a concentration (a measure of photosynthetic activity).  The researchers sampled for phytoplankton, zooplankton and used dip nets to sample macroinvertebrates.  They found few differences in most categories except for the composition of the phytoplankton community. As you can see below, lakes with hippos had considerably more cyanophytes (photosynthetic bacteria often associated with harmful algal blooms), and fewer chlorophytes and charophytes (types of green algae) than did lakes without hippos.


Mean relative density of different divisions of phytoplankton in the two lakes with hippos (left bar) and the 12 lakes without hippos (right bar).

Shurin and his colleagues also estimated net production of each lake by systematically measuring dissolved oxygen concentration throughout the day. Photosynthetic organisms in highly productive lakes should take up lots of carbon dioxide during the day, and release considerable oxygen into the water.  Thus the difference in oxygen levels during the day (when photosynthesis occurs) vs. night (when there is no photosynthetic activity) would be greatest in highly productive lakes. The researchers discovered from multiple samples that the two lakes with hippos had an average range of 3.6 mg/L in dissolved oxygen levels which was significantly greater than the average range of 2.1 mg/L measured in three of the lakes without hippos (it was not feasible to measure all of the no hippo lakes). Presumably, this difference occurs from high photosynthetic rates during the day in the lakes with hippos.


Time series of dissolved oxygen in the sampled lakes.  Notice how dissolved oxygen levels peak in the late afternoon (hour 12 = noon), but decline overnight without input from photosynthesis.

In addition to comparing the quantity of nutrients, Shurin and his colleagues wanted to know the source of the nutrients.  Stable isotopes are forms of elements (in this case carbon and nitrogen) that differ in number of neutrons.  They are called stable, because they don’t undergo radioactive decay.  Stable isotope analysis measures the ratio of rare isotopes of a particular element in comparison to the more common isotope (for example 13C compared to 12C). Relevant to the hippo study, plants growing on land tend to have a higher (less negative for carbon, more positive for nitrogen) stable isotope ratio of carbon (delta13C) and nitrogen (delta15N) than do plants growing in water.  So if hippos were bringing nutrients into the lakes, the researchers expected the two hippo lakes to have higher stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen.

As you can see from the graph below, on average, the two hippo lakes had higher stable isotope ratios of carbon, but not of nitrogen.  This indicates that hippos are importing carbon into the lake – presumably eating 13C rich plants during the evening, and then pooping out the remains when they return to the water.  However there is no evidence that hippos are importing nitrogen into the lakes.


Stable C and N isotopic ratios for samples collected from lakes with (green) and without (orange) hippo populations. Solid circles are the mean values of multiple samples collected at different times from the same lake, and open circles are the individual observations from each sample.

Shurin and his colleagues acknowledge the difficulty of drawing conclusions on ecosystem impact based on only two lakes with hippos.  On the other hand, finding significant differences with such a small sample is noteworthy, particularly when considering that the hippo invasion may be in its early stages.  If we extrapolate, from four hippos in 1993 to the lower estimate of 65 hippos at the time of the study, and assume exponential growth, we should find 785 hippos by 2040 and over 7000 hippos by 2060.  There are several assumptions with this extrapolation, but if unchecked the hippo population could expand dramatically, impacting ecosystem functioning in many different ways.


Observed (solid circles) and projected (open circles) growth of the hippo population in Antioquia, Columbia, assuming exponential growth.

But should we worry about this?  After all, hippos are amazingly cool, and tourists have begun visiting Hacienda Napoles specifically to see the hippos.  This is an example of a social-ecological mismatch, where the societal value placed on a species may oppose potential negative environmental impact. Conservation ecologists will need to work with the local community to devise a plan that serves the best interests of the ecosystem, and the humans who live there.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Shurin, J. B., Aranguren-Riaño, N., Duque Negro, D., Echeverri Lopez, D., Jones, N. T., Laverde‐R, O., Neu, A., and Pedroza Ramos, A. 2020. Ecosystem effects of the world’s largest invasive animal. Ecology 101(5):e02991. 10.1002/ecy.2991. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2020 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Urchins in hot water

The fabled Mediterranean Sea is under stress from overfishing, pollution, rapid warming, and the associated proliferation of invasive species that thrive in the warming waters.  Two species of rabbitfish (Siganus luridus and Siganus rivulatus) crossed the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea in the 20th century, and now make up about 95% of the herbivorous fish in rocky habitats along the Levant Basin off the Israeli coast.  These fish are voracious feeders on macroalgae that live in the Levant, and they have become much more abundant during the past 30 years in association with increased water temperatures of 2-3 degrees C.

luridusRoberto Pillon

The rabbitfish Siganus luridus. Credit: Roberto Pillon at Wikipedia.

While the Levant has been warming and rabbitfish have been proliferating, things have not gone very well for the purple sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus.  Previously, it had been a very important consumer of macroalgae within the Levant, but its population has collapsed within the past decades.  For his Masters program, Erez Yeruham decided to investigate why the sea urchin population collapsed.  Initially, he and his colleagues thought it was likely that sea urchins were competitively excluded by the invasive rabbitfish. These fish overgrazed much of the algal meadows, forming barren grounds along much of the Israeli coastline. However, during the experiments they did to check that out, they noted that sea urchin mortality occurred in two consecutive summers, but not in other seasons. That led them to explore how sea urchin survival was affected by both the impact of warming water and by competition with rabbitfish.

study site

Researchers construct cages to investigate to investigate the causes of sea urchin population collapse.  See description below. Credit Erez Yeruham.

To investigate competitive exclusion of sea urchins by rabbitfish, the researchers bolted 25 metal cages (50 x 50 x 20 cm) to the rocks approximately 9 meters below the surface of the sea. They set up six different treatments: (1) fish only (F), (2) fish and sea urchins (FU), (3) sea urchins only (U), (4) no fish nor sea urchins (N), (5) cage control – a partial cage that allowed access to organisms (CC), and (6) no cage – an open control plot marked with bolts (NC).  For the treatments with sea urchins (FU and U), the researchers introduced five sea urchins into each cage. For the treatments with fish (F and FU), the researchers cut oblong holes in the mesh large enough for rabbitfish to get through. There were five replicates of each experiment in the fall of 2011 and again in the spring of 2012.


Metal cage with five sea urchins (upper left corner of cage). Credit: Erez Yeruham.

Yeruham and his colleagues discovered that fish drastically reduced the abundance of soft algae, but that urchins had no discernable effect.  The researchers suggest that sea urchin density in the cages was low enough that even though sea urchins were eating some soft algae, the effects were too small to be detected. Both fish and sea urchins had very little effect on the abundance of calcareous algae (algae with hard crusty surfaces).


Mean (+ standard error) dry weight (grams) of soft and calcareous algae for the six experimental treatments.

The researchers compared the amount of food in sea urchin guts when they were caged by themselves, or in cages with fish access.  Sea urchins had 40% more food in their guts when fish were excluded (left graph below).  In addition, they had a 30% greater gonado-somatic index (GSI) when fish were excluded (right graph below – the GSI measures the relative size of the gonads – a high GSI indicates good health and high reproductive potential). So when rabbitfish could visit the cages, sea urchins ate much less and suffered poorer health.


Mean dry organic gut content (left graph) and GSI (right graph) of sea urchins with and without fish.

The results of this experiment show that rabbitfish have strong competitive effects on sea urchin food intake and overall health. But do warmer waters also help to explain the collapse of sea urchin populations in the Levant?  And might thermal stress interact with food limitation to influence sea urchin health?  To answer these questions the researchers used seawater pumped in directly from the sea into tanks that housed eight sea urchins.  Five tanks received ambient temperature seawater, while five other tanks received water that was chilled by 2 deg. C to mimic water temperatures before sea urchin populations collapsed.  Each tank was divided in half by a partition so that four urchins could be fed (algae) three times a week, while the other four urchins were starved.

One important finding is that during the winter, feeding rates were similar when comparing sea urchins in ambient vs. chilled sea water (two left bars below – those differences are not statistically significant).  However, feeding rates plummeted in the summer when water temperatures exceeded 29 deg. C in the ambient-temperature sea water.


Mean algal consumption by sea urchins in ambient vs. chilled water during the winter (two left bars) and summer (two right bars).

Respiration rates (measured as oxygen consumption) are a good measure of metabolic performance. Highest respiration rates were measured in the winter with fed sea urchins (ambient was slightly higher than cold) and in the summer with cold fed sea urchins.  Most notably, when sea water temperatures increased above 29 deg. C in the summer, the respiration rates were very low, even in sea urchins that were well-fed.


Mean (+ standard error) respiration rate (measured as oxygen uptake) of starved and fed sea urchins in ambient vs. chilled water during the winter and summer.

What emerges from this series of experiments is that sea urchins feed much more poorly and have lower respiration rates at high temperatures, independent of the effects of competition with rabbitfish.  The researchers also found that survival rates were lower at elevated temperatures.  Yeruham and his colleagues conclude that the direct effects of high temperature and the indirect effects of competition with rabbitfish are important factors that together conspired to lead to the collapse of sea urchin populations in the Levant.  They expect that as sea temperatures increase, rabbitfish will become more dominant in other regions that are now a bit cooler than the Levant. As warming continues and competition increases, Yeruham and his colleagues predict that sea urchin populations will collapse in those somewhat cooler ecosystems as well, changing the structure and functioning of coastal ecosystems across the Mediterranean.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Yeruham, E.,  Shpigel, M.,  Abelson, A., and  Rilov, G..  2020.  Ocean warming and tropical invaders erode the performance of a key herbivore. Ecology  101( 2):e02925. 10.1002/ecy.2925. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2020 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.


Hot invaders thwart endemic New Zealanders

Tongariro National Park in New Zealand’s North Island is changing in many ways.  Over the past 50 years, the park, which has three large volcanoes, has increased in temperature at about three times the global average (about 1.5 deg. C) and is also receiving reduced annual rainfall. The park hosts a large number of endemic plants – species that are native to that region and found nowhere else.


Tongariro National Park in New Zealand.  The plastic sheets in the foreground are open top enclosures used to experimentally raise air and soil temperatures. Credit: Justyna Giejsztowt.

Monoao (Dracophyllum subulatum), is an endemic shrub that thrives in low-lying areas between the volcanoes.  Ecologically it is a facilitator, in that its growth form protects a variety of native species from heavy frosts, thereby promoting high species diversity within the plant communities.


The native monoao (Dracophyllum subulatum). Credit: Justyna Giejsztowt.

In addition to the threat of climate change, portions of Tongariro National Park are also being invaded by common heather (Calluna vulgaris), which has already caused a decline in many native and endemic plant species, and their associated insect communities.  Justyna Giejsztowt had worked previously as a technician for a project that investigated how climate change affected plant communities.  She noticed that the invasive heather had a stronger phenological response to warming than did the native community, flowering earlier and reaching peak floral density at an earlier date. Watching the countryside turn pink from the invasive flowers during that season, she wondered whether the pollinator community might be changing as well, which could affect the reproductive success of the surrounding native vegetation.  So she and her colleagues decided to do some experiments.


The invasive heather, Calluna vulgaris. Credit: Justyna Giejsztowt.

Beginning in 2014, the researchers used hexagonal open-topped chambers to increase air and soil temperatures in experimental plots, while also maintaining unmanipulated control plots (you can see the plastic chambers in the top photo of Tongariro National Park). The researchers measured flowering dates for monoao and heather in each plot (and 11 other less abundant species as well), and estimated the number of flowers in each plot on a regular basis.


Daily mean temperatures (°C) over the 2015/2016 austral summer in experimentally warmed (red) and ambient temperature (blue) plots.

The researchers expected that experimental warming would cause more overlap between the time period when monoao and heather were both in flower.  This is exactly what they found.  Heather reached a high level of flowering much earlier in the year under experimental warming, increasing the percentage of flowering overlap from 2.79% (top graph below) to 11.27% (bottom graph).


Floral density of Calluna vulgaris (heather – dashed line) and Dracophyllum subulatum (monoao – solid line) under ambient (top graph) and experimentally warmed (bottom graph) temperature regimes. Shaded regions denote flowering overlap of monoao with high densities of heather.

This increase in overlap would increase the number of flowers open at a particular time, which might increase competition for pollinators leading to reduced reproductive success. On the other hand, increase in overlap could make a strong visual or olfactory impression on pollinators, drawing them into the area and thereby increasing plant reproductive success.  Or both forces could be important and cancel each other out.

Giejsztowt and her colleagues set up a second experiment to explore how the ratio of native monoao to invasive heather in a patch, and also the total number of flowers of either type within the patch, influenced monoao’s reproductive success.  They intentionally chose patches that had either (1) high monoao flower numbers and high heather flower numbers, (2) high monoao, low heather, (3) low monoao, high heather, or (4) low monoao, low heather.  The researchers chose nine focal plants within each plot, and from these plants they set up four transects running north, east, south and west. Each transect was 25 meters long and 40 cm wide.  The researchers estimated flower abundance in each transect.  As their measure of monoao reproductive success, they collected seeds produced by each focal monoao plant, dried them and then weighed them.

Giejsztowt and her colleagues found that neither the ratio of native to invasive plants, nor total floral density had any direct effect on monoao reproductive success.  However, the interaction of these two factors had a strong effect.  Seed masses of focal monoao plants were heaviest in patches with a high ratio of native to invasive plants, but only if the patches had intermediate or high overall floral density.  In contrast, monoao in patches composed of mostly invasive heather had consistently low seed masses, regardless of overall flower density in the patch.


Monoao seed mass (g) adjusted for the effect of plant height, relative to total floral density in the landscape. Colors denote native monoao (green) or invasive heather (black) dominance (making up more than 50% of the flowers). 

The researchers were not surprised to find that heather responded more strongly to increased temperature than did monoao, as several studies have shown that invasive species tend to have flexible phenology in response to changing environmental conditions. By shifting its peak flowering earlier in response to warmer temperature, heather increased its flowering overlap with monoao, which could, and did, increase competitive effects on monoao reproductive success.  When there were numerous flowers in a patch, but monoao was rarer than heather, monoao had relatively low reproductive success.  In contrast, if monoao was more common than heather, it achieved much greater reproductive success.

Why does this happen?  The researchers suggest that at high floral densities, heather may outcompete monoao for pollinators.  The mechanism for this competitive effect is unknown; invasive species have been shown to influence pollinator behavior and the numbers and types of pollinator within the community.  Because pollinators are declining globally, it is critical to understand how climate change and invasive species can interact to reduce pollination services to native plants within ecosystems.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Giejsztowt, J.,  Classen, A. T., and  Deslippe, J. R..  2020.  Climate change and invasion may synergistically affect native plant reproduction. Ecology  101( 1):e02913. 10.1002/ecy.2913. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2020 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

crayfish, egg masses, clutches

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.


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.


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.

Intertidal tussles: a shifting balance

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Baillie, C. J. and Grabowski, J. H. (2018), Competitive and agonistic interactions between the invasive Asian shore crab and juvenile American lobster. Ecology, 99: 2067-2079. doi:10.1002/ecy.2432. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Indirect effects of the lionfish invasion

I’m old enough to remember when ecological studies of invasive species were uncommon.  Early on, there was a debate within the ecological community whether they should be called “invasive” (which conveyed to some people an aggressive image akin to a military invasion) or more dispassionately “exotic” or “introduced.” Lionfish (Pterois volitans), however, fit this more aggressive moniker. Native to the south Pacific and Indian Oceans, lionfish were first sighted in south Florida in 1985, and became established along the east Atlantic coast and Caribbean Islands by the early 2000s. They are active and voracious predators, consuming over 50 different species of prey in their newly-adopted habitat. Many population ecologists study the direct consumptive effects of invasive species such as lionfish.  In some cases they find that an invasive species may deplete its prey population to very low levels, and even drive it to extinction.


A lionfish swims in a reef. Credit: Tye Kindinger

But things are not always that simple. Tye Kindinger realized that lionfish (or any predator that feeds on more than one species) could influence prey populations in several different ways.  For the present study, Kindinger considered two different prey species – the fairy basslet (Gramma loreto) and the blackcap basslet (Gramma melacara). Both species feed primarily on zooplankton, with larger individuals monopolizing prime feeding locations at the front of reef ledges, while smaller individuals are forced to feed at the back of ledges where plankton are less abundant, and predators are more common.  Thus there is intense competition both within and between these two species for food and habitat. Kindinger reasoned that if lionfish depleted one of these competing species more than the other, they could be indirectly benefiting the second species by releasing it from competition.


Fairy basslet (top) and blackcap basslet (bottom). Credit Tye Kindinger.

For her PhD research, Kindinger set up an experiment in which she manipulated both lionfish abundance and the abundance of each basslet species.  She created high density and low density lionfish reefs by capturing most of the lionfish from one reef and transferring them to another (a total of three reefs of each density).  She manipulated basslet density on each reef by removing either fairy or blackcap basslets from an isolated reef ledge within a particular reef.  This experimental design allowed her to separate out the effects of predation by lionfish from the effects of competition between the two basslet species.  Most of her results pertained to juveniles, which were about 2 cm long and favored by the lionfish.


Alex Davis

Alex Davis captures and removes basslets beneath a ledge. Credit Tye Kindinger.

Kindinger measured basslet abundance in grams of basslet biomass per m2 of ledge area.  When lionfish were abundant, juvenile fairy basslet abundance decreased over the eight weeks of the experiment (dashed line) but did not change when lionfish were rare (solid line).  In contrast, juvenile blackcap basslet populations remained steady over the course of the study, whether lionfish were abundant or rare. Kindinger concluded that lionfish were eating more fairy basslets.


Abundance of juvenile fairy basslets (left) and blackcap basslets (right) as measured as change in overall biomass. Triangles represent high lionfish reefs and circles are low lionfish reefs.

Competition is intense between the two basslet species, and can affect feeding position and growth rate.  Kindinger’s manipulations of lionfish density and basslet density demonstrate that fairy basslet foraging and growth depend primarily on the abundance of their blackcap competitors. When competitor blackcap basslets are common (approach a biomass value of 1.0 on the x-axis on the two graphs below), fairy basslets tend to move towards the back of the ledge, and grow more slowly.  This occurs at both high and low lionfish densities.


Change in feeding position (top) and growth rate (bottom) of fairy basslets in relation to competitor (blackcap basslet) abundance (x-axis) and lionfish abundance (triangles = high, circles = low)

In contrast, blackcap basslets had an interactive response to fairy basslet and lionfish abundance. Let’s look first at low lionfish densities (circles in the graphs below).  You can see that blackcap basslets tend to move towards the back of the ledge (poor feeding position) at high competitor (fairy basslet) biomass, and also grow very slowly.  But when lionfish are common (triangles in the graphs below), blackcap basslets retain a favorable feeding position and grow quickly, even at high fairy basslet abundance.


Change in feeding position (top) and growth rate (bottom) of blackcap basslets in relation to competitor (fairy basslet) abundance (x-axis) and lionfish abundance (triangles = high, circles = low)

By preying primarily on fairy basslets, lionfish are changing the dynamics of competition between the two species. The diagram below nicely summarizes the process.  Larger fish of both species forage near the front of the ledge, while smaller fish forage further back.  But there is an even distribution of both species.  Focusing on juveniles, they are relatively evenly distributed in the rear portion of the ledge (Figure B).  When fairy basslets are removed experimentally, the juvenile blackcap basslets move to the front of the rear portion of the ledge, as they are released from competition with fairy basslets (Figure D).  Finally, when lionfish are abundant, fairy basslets are eaten more frequently, and juvenile blackcaps benefit from the lack of competition (Figure F)


Kindinger was very surprised with the results of this study because she knew the lionfish were generalist predators that eat both basslet species, so she expected lionfish to have similar effects on both prey species.  But they didn’t, and she does not know why.  Do lionfish prefer to eat fairy basslets due to increased conspicuousness or higher activity levels, or are blackcap basslets better at escaping lionfish predators? Whatever the mechanism, this study highlights that indirect effects of predation by invasive species can influence prey populations in unexpected ways.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Kindinger, T. L. (2018). Invasive predator tips the balance of symmetrical competition between native coral‐reef fishes. Ecology99(4), 792-800. 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.

Too much of a good thing is killing Monarch butterflies

There was a time in the mid-Pleisticine when a photo of an ecological event was an awesome novelty, and a movie of an ecological event even more so.  Dodderers of an ecological bent (myself included), can vividly recall viewing a series of photos or a movie, either in a seminar or in an ancient ecology text, of a blue jay consuming a monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.  Consumption is immediately followed by explosive vomiting, as the cardenolides within the monarch butterfly claim another victim.  The monarch sequesters these cardenolide toxins from its larval food (milkweed), and incorporates them into its tissues as a means of protecting itself from predators – presumably blue jays learn from this very aversive experience.  I should point out that the individual sacrificial butterfly enjoys no fitness from this learning event – which raises some evolutionary questions we will not explore at the present.

Karen Oberhauser

Five instars (stages of development) of monarch caterpillars on a milkweed leaf. Credit: Karen Oberhauser

Rather we turn our attention to the relationship between milkweed, monarchs, and climate change. In several places in this blog we’ve talked about how climate change has influenced the behavior or physiology of a single species. For example, my first blog (Jan 31, 2017) discusses how increasing temperatures create more females in a loggerhead turtle population. But there are fewer studies that explore how climate change influences the ecological landscape, ultimately affecting interactions between species.  Along these lines, Matt Faldyn wondered if increased air temperature would change the chemical constitution of milkweed in a way that might influence monarch populations.  As he describes, “With milkweed toxicity, there is a ‘goldilocks’ zone where monarchs prefer to feed on milkweed that produce enough toxins in order to sequester these (cardenolide) chemicals as an antipredator/antiparasite defense, while also avoiding reaching a tipping point of toxicity where feeding on very toxic milkweeds negatively impacts monarch fitness.” He expected that at higher temperatures, milkweed would become stressed, and be physiologically unable to sustain normal levels of cardenolide production.


Monarch butterfly feeds on a native milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. Credit: Teune at the English Language Wikipedia.

For their research, Faldyn and his colleagues worked with two milkweed species.  Asclepias incarnata is a common, native milkweed found throughout the monarch butterfly’s range in the eastern and southeastern United States.  Asclepias curassavica is an exotic species that has become established in the southern United States.  In contrast to A. incarnata, A. curassavica does not die back over the winter months; consequently some monarch populations are no longer migratory, relying on A. curassavicato provide them with a year round food supply.


The exotic milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. Credit: 2016 Jee & Rani Nature Photography (License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

To protect against herbivory, milkweeds have two primary chemical deterrants: (1) the already-mentioned cardenolides, which are toxic steroids that disrupt cell membrane function, and (2) release of sticky latex, which can gum up caterpillar mouthparts and actually trap young caterpillars.

field_noborderii.jpgThe researchers wanted to simulate climate change under field conditions, so they created open-top chambers with plexiglass plates that functioned much like mini-greenhouses, into which they placed one milkweed plant that was covered with butterfly netting.  This setup raised ambient temperatures by about 3°C during the day and 0.2°C at nighttime.  Control plots were single milkweed plants with butterfly netting. Half of the plants were native milkweed, and the other half were the exotic species.

For their experiments, Faldyn and his colleagues introduced 80 monarch caterpillars (one per plant) and allowed them to feed normally until they pupated.  Pupae were brought into the lab and allowed to metamorphose into adults.


Matt Faldyn holds two monarch butterflies in the laboratory. Credit Matt Faldyn.

At normal (ambient) temperatures, monarchs survived somewhat better on exotic milkweed.  But at warmer temperatures, there is a strikingly different picture. Monarch survival is unaffected by warmer temperatures on native milkweed, but is sharply reduced by warmer temperatures on exotic milkweed (top graph below). The few that managed to survive warm temperatures on exotic milkweed grew much smaller, based on their body mass and forewing length (middle and bottom graph below)


Survival (top), adult mass (middle) and forewing length (bottom) of monarch butterflies raised under normal (ambient) and warmed temperatures.  Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.

Both milkweed species increased production of both types of chemicals over the course of the experiment. But by the end of the experiment, the exotic species released 3-times the quantity of latex and 13-times the quantity of cardenolides than did the native milkweed species.


Average amount of latex released at the beginning and end of the experiment.  Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.


Average cardenolide concentration at the beginning and end of the experiment.

The researchers argue that the exotic milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, may become an ecological trap for monarch butterflies, in that it attracts monarchs to feed on it, but will, under future warmer conditions, result in dramatically reduced monarch survival. Interestingly, these results are not what Faldyn originally expected; recall that he anticipated that temperature-stressed plants would reduce cardenolide production. The tremendous increase in cardenolide production in exotic milkweed at warmer temperatures may simply be too much toxin for the monarchs to process. The researchers predict that as climate warms, milkweed ranges will expand further north into Canada, and lead to northward shifts of monarch populations as well.  They urge nurseries to emphasize the distribution of native rather than exotic milkweed, so that monarchs will be less likely to become victims of this ecological trap.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Faldyn, M. J., Hunter, M. D. and Elderd, B. D. (2018), Climate change and an invasive, tropical milkweed: an ecological trap for monarch butterflies. Ecology. doi:10.1002/ecy.2198. 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.