ResearchPad - General Environmental Science Default RSS Feed en-us © 2020 Newgen KnowledgeWorks <![CDATA[Do avian blood parasites influence hypoxia physiology in a high elevation environment?]]>


Montane birds which engage in elevational movements have evolved to cope with fluctuations in environmental hypoxia, through changes in physiological parameters associated with blood oxygen-carrying capacity such as haemoglobin concentration (Hb) and haematocrit (Hct). In particular, elevational migrants which winter at low elevations, encounter varying intensities of avian haemosporidian parasites as they traverse heterogeneous environments. Whilst high intensity parasite infections lead to anaemia, one can expect that the ability to cope with haemosporidian infections should be a key trait for elevational migrants that must be balanced against reducing the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood in response to high elevation. In this study, we explored the links between environmental hypoxia, migration, and disease ecology by examining natural variation in infections status and intensity of avian haemoporidians across a suite of Himalayan birds with different migratory strategies while controlling for host phylogeny.


We found predictably large variation in haemoglobin levels across the elevational gradient and this pattern was strongly influenced by season and whether birds are elevational migrants. The overall malaria infection intensity declined with elevation whereas Hb and Hct decreased with increase in parasite intensity, suggesting an important role of malaria parasites on hypoxia stressed birds in high elevation environments.


Our results provide a key insight into how physiological measures and sub-clinical infections might affect dynamics of high-elevation bird populations. We suggest a potential impact of avian elevational migration on disease dynamics and exposure to high intensity infections with disease spread in the face of climate change, which will exacerbate hypoxic stress and negative effects of chronic avian malaria infection on survival and reproductive success in wild birds. Future work on chronic parasite infections must consider parasite intensity, rather than relying on infection status alone.

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (10.1186/s12898-018-0171-2) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

<![CDATA[Climate change and bird reproduction: warmer springs benefit breeding success in boreal forest grouse]]>

Global warming is predicted to adversely affect the reproduction of birds, especially in northern latitudes. A recent study in Finland inferred that declining populations of black grouse, Tetrao tetrix, could be attributed to advancement of the time of mating and chicks hatching too early—supporting the mismatch hypothesis. Here, we examine the breeding success of sympatric capercaillie, T. urogallus, and black grouse over a 38-year period in southeast Norway. Breeding season temperatures increased, being most pronounced in April. Although the onset of spring advanced nearly three weeks, the peak of mating advanced only 4–5 days. In contrast to the result of the Finnish study, breeding success increased markedly in both species (capercaillie: 62%, black grouse: 38%). Both brood frequency and brood size increased during the study period, but significantly so only for brood frequency in capercaillie. Whereas the frequency of capercaillie broods was positively affected by rising temperatures, especially during the pre-hatching period, this was not the case in black grouse. Brood size, on the other hand, increased with increasing post-hatching temperatures in both species. Contrary to the prediction that global warming will adversely affect reproduction in boreal forest grouse, our study shows that breeding success was enhanced in warmer springs.

<![CDATA[Adaptation to a novel family environment involves both apparent and cryptic phenotypic changes]]>

Cryptic evolution occurs when evolutionary change is masked by concurrent environmental change. In most cases, evolutionary changes in the phenotype are masked by changing abiotic factors. However, evolutionary change in one trait might also be masked by evolutionary change in another trait, a phenomenon referred to as evolutionary environmental deterioration. Nevertheless, detecting this second type of cryptic evolution is challenging and there are few compelling examples. Here, we describe a likely case of evolutionary environmental deterioration occurring in experimental burying beetle (Nicrophorus vespilloides) populations that are adapting to a novel social environment that lacks post-hatching parental care. We found that populations rapidly adapted to the removal of post-hatching parental care. This adaptation involved clear increases in breeding success and larval density (number of dispersing larvae produced per gram of breeding carcass), which in turn masked a concurrent increase in the mean larval mass across generations. This cryptic increase in larval mass was accomplished through a change in the reaction norm that relates mean larval mass to larval density. Our results suggest that cryptic evolution might be commonplace in animal families, because evolving trophic and social interactions can potentially mask evolutionary change in other traits, like body size.

<![CDATA[Fixational eye movements predict visual sensitivity]]>

During steady fixation, observers make small fixational saccades at a rate of around 1–2 per second. Presentation of a visual stimulus triggers a biphasic modulation in fixational saccade rate—an initial inhibition followed by a period of elevated rate and a subsequent return to baseline. Here we show that, during passive viewing, this rate signature is highly sensitive to small changes in stimulus contrast. By training a linear support vector machine to classify trials in which a stimulus is either present or absent, we directly compared the contrast sensitivity of fixational eye movements with individuals' psychophysical judgements. Classification accuracy closely matched psychophysical performance, and predicted individuals' threshold estimates with less bias and overall error than those obtained using specific features of the signature. Performance of the classifier was robust to changes in the training set (novel subjects and/or contrasts) and good prediction accuracy was obtained with a practicable number of trials. Our results indicate a tight coupling between the sensitivity of visual perceptual judgements and fixational eye control mechanisms. This raises the possibility that fixational saccades could provide a novel and objective means of estimating visual contrast sensitivity without the need for observers to make any explicit judgement.

<![CDATA[Pathogenic Yet Environmentally Friendly? Black Fungal Candidates for Bioremediation of Pollutants]]> <![CDATA[Effects of resource variation during early life and adult social environment on contest outcomes in burying beetles: a context-dependent silver spoon strategy?]]>

Good early nutritional conditions may confer a lasting fitness advantage over individuals suffering poor early conditions (a ‘silver spoon’ effect). Alternatively, if early conditions predict the likely adult environment, adaptive plastic responses might maximize individual performance when developmental and adult conditions match (environmental-matching effect). Here, we test for silver spoon and environmental-matching effects by manipulating the early nutritional environment of Nicrophorus vespilloides burying beetles. We manipulated nutrition during two specific early developmental windows: the larval environment and the post-eclosion environment. We then tested contest success in relation to variation in adult social environmental quality experienced (defined according to whether contest opponents were smaller (good environment) or larger (poor environment) than the focal individual). Variation in the larval environment influenced adult body size but not contest success per se for a given adult social environment experienced (an ‘indirect’ silver spoon effect). Variation in post-eclosion environment affected contest success dependent on the quality of the adult environment experienced (a context-dependent ‘direct’ silver spoon effect). By contrast, there was no evidence for environmental-matching. The results demonstrate the importance of social environmental context in determining how variation in nutrition in early life affects success as an adult.

<![CDATA[How choosy should I be? The relative searching time predicts evolution of choosiness under direct sexual selection]]>

Most theoretical research in sexual selection has focused on indirect selection. However, empirical studies have not strongly supported indirect selection. A well-established finding is that direct benefits and costs exert a strong influence on the evolution of mate choice. We present an analytical model in which unilateral mate choice evolves solely by direct sexual selection on choosiness. We show this is sufficient to generate the evolution of all possible levels of choosiness, because of the fundamental trade-off between mating rate and mating benefits. We further identify the relative searching time (RST, i.e. the proportion of lifetime devoted to searching for mates) as a predictor of the effect of any variable affecting the mating rate on the evolution of choosiness. We show that the RST: (i) allows one to make predictions about the evolution of choosiness across a wide variety of mating systems; (ii) encompasses all alternative variables proposed thus far to explain the evolution of choosiness by direct sexual selection; and (iii) can be empirically used to infer qualitative differences in choosiness.

<![CDATA[Social mixing patterns in rural and urban areas of southern China]]>

A dense population, global connectivity and frequent human–animal interaction give southern China an important role in the spread and emergence of infectious disease. However, patterns of person-to-person contact relevant to the spread of directly transmitted infections such as influenza remain poorly quantified in the region. We conducted a household-based survey of travel and contact patterns among urban and rural populations of Guangdong, China. We measured the character and distance from home of social encounters made by 1821 individuals. Most individuals reported 5–10 h of contact with around 10 individuals each day; however, both distributions have long tails. The distribution of distance from home at which contacts were made is similar: most were within a kilometre of the participant's home, while some occurred further than 500 km away. Compared with younger individuals, older individuals made fewer contacts which tended to be closer to home. There was strong assortativity in age-based contact rates. We found no difference between the total number or duration of contacts between urban and rural participants, but urban participants tended to make contacts closer to home. These results can improve mathematical models of infectious disease emergence, spread and control in southern China and throughout the region.

<![CDATA[Holarctic genetic structure and range dynamics in the woolly mammoth]]>

Ancient DNA analyses have provided enhanced resolution of population histories in many Pleistocene taxa. However, most studies are spatially restricted, making inference of species-level biogeographic histories difficult. Here, we analyse mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variation in the woolly mammoth from across its Holarctic range to reconstruct its history over the last 200 thousand years (kyr). We identify a previously undocumented major mtDNA lineage in Europe, which was replaced by another major mtDNA lineage 32–34 kyr before present (BP). Coalescent simulations provide support for demographic expansions at approximately 121 kyr BP, suggesting that the previous interglacial was an important driver for demography and intraspecific genetic divergence. Furthermore, our results suggest an expansion into Eurasia from America around 66 kyr BP, coinciding with the first exposure of the Bering Land Bridge during the Late Pleistocene. Bayesian inference indicates Late Pleistocene demographic stability until 20–15 kyr BP, when a severe population size decline occurred.

<![CDATA[Complex environmental drivers of immunity and resistance in malaria mosquitoes]]>

Considerable research effort has been directed at understanding the genetic and molecular basis of mosquito innate immune mechanisms. Whether environmental factors interact with these mechanisms to shape overall resistance remains largely unexplored. Here, we examine how changes in mean ambient temperature, diurnal temperature fluctuation and time of day of infection affected the immunity and resistance of Anopheles stephensi to infection with Escherichia coli. We used quantitative PCR to estimate the gene expression of three immune genes in response to challenge with heat-killed E. coli. We also infected mosquitoes with live E. coli and ran bacterial growth assays to quantify host resistance. Both mosquito immune parameters and resistance were directly affected by mean temperature, diurnal temperature fluctuation and time of day of infection. Furthermore, there was a suite of complex two- and three-way interactions yielding idiosyncratic phenotypic variation under different environmental conditions. The results demonstrate mosquito immunity and resistance to be strongly influenced by a complex interplay of environmental variables, challenging the interpretation of the very many mosquito immune studies conducted under standard laboratory conditions.

<![CDATA[A cure for the plague of parameters: constraining models of complex population dynamics with allometries]]>

A major goal of ecology is to discover how dynamics and structure of multi-trophic ecological communities are related. This is difficult, because whole-community data are limited and typically comprise only a snapshot of a community instead of a time series of dynamics, and mathematical models of complex system dynamics have a large number of unmeasured parameters and therefore have been only tenuously related to real systems. These are related problems, because long time-series, if they were commonly available, would enable inference of parameters. The resulting ‘plague of parameters’ means most studies of multi-species population dynamics have been very theoretical. Dynamical models parametrized using physiological allometries may offer a partial cure for the plague of parameters, and these models are increasingly used in theoretical studies. However, physiological allometries cannot determine all parameters, and the models have also rarely been directly tested against data. We confronted a model of community dynamics with data from a lake community. Many important empirical patterns were reproducible as outcomes of dynamics, and were not reproducible when parameters did not follow physiological allometries. Results validate the usefulness, when parameters follow physiological allometries, of classic differential-equation models for understanding whole-community dynamics and the structure–dynamics relationship.

<![CDATA[Adaptive radiation of chemosymbiotic deep-sea mussels]]>

Adaptive radiations present fascinating opportunities for studying the evolutionary process. Most cases come from isolated lakes or islands, where unoccupied ecological space is filled through novel adaptations. Here, we describe an unusual example of an adaptive radiation: symbiotic mussels that colonized island-like chemosynthetic environments such as hydrothermal vents, cold seeps and sunken organic substrates on the vast deep-sea floor. Our time-calibrated molecular phylogeny suggests that the group originated and acquired sulfur-oxidizing symbionts in the Late Cretaceous, possibly while inhabiting organic substrates and long before its major radiation in the Middle Eocene to Early Oligocene. The first appearance of intracellular and methanotrophic symbionts was detected only after this major radiation. Thus, contrary to expectations, the major radiation may have not been triggered by the evolution of novel types of symbioses. We hypothesize that environmental factors, such as increased habitat availability and/or increased dispersal capabilities, sparked the radiation. Intracellular and methanotrophic symbionts were acquired in several independent lineages and marked the onset of a second wave of diversification at vents and seeps. Changes in habitat type resulted in adaptive trends in shell lengths (related to the availability of space and energy, and physiological trade-offs) and in the successive colonization of greater water depths.

<![CDATA[Extended disease resistance emerging from the faecal nest of a subterranean termite]]>

Social insects nesting in soil environments are in constant contact with entomopathogens but have evolved a range of defence mechanisms, resulting in both individual and social immunity that reduce the chance for epizootics in the colony, as in the case of subterranean termites. Coptotermes formosanus uses its faeces as building material for its nest structure that result into a ‘carton material’, and here, we report that the faecal nest supports the growth of Actinobacteria which provide another level of protection to the social group against entomopathogens. A Streptomyces species with in vivo antimicrobial activity against fungal entomopathogens was isolated from the nest material of multiple termite colonies. Termite groups were exposed to Metarhizium anisopliae, a fungal entomopathogen, during their foraging activity and the presence of Streptomyces within the nest structure provided a significant survival benefit to the termites. Therefore, this report describes a non-nutritional exosymbiosis in a termite, in the form of a defensive mutualism which has emerged from the use of faecal material in the nesting structure of Coptotermes. The association with an Actinobacteria community in the termite faecal material provides an extended disease resistance to the termite group as another level of defence, in addition to their individual and social immunity.

<![CDATA[Molecular and fossil evidence place the origin of cichlid fishes long after Gondwanan rifting]]>

Cichlid fishes are a key model system in the study of adaptive radiation, speciation and evolutionary developmental biology. More than 1600 cichlid species inhabit freshwater and marginal marine environments across several southern landmasses. This distributional pattern, combined with parallels between cichlid phylogeny and sequences of Mesozoic continental rifting, has led to the widely accepted hypothesis that cichlids are an ancient group whose major biogeographic patterns arose from Gondwanan vicariance. Although the Early Cretaceous (ca 135 Ma) divergence of living cichlids demanded by the vicariance model now represents a key calibration for teleost molecular clocks, this putative split pre-dates the oldest cichlid fossils by nearly 90 Myr. Here, we provide independent palaeontological and relaxed-molecular-clock estimates for the time of cichlid origin that collectively reject the antiquity of the group required by the Gondwanan vicariance scenario. The distribution of cichlid fossil horizons, the age of stratigraphically consistent outgroup lineages to cichlids and relaxed-clock analysis of a DNA sequence dataset consisting of 10 nuclear genes all deliver overlapping estimates for crown cichlid origin centred on the Palaeocene (ca 65–57 Ma), substantially post-dating the tectonic fragmentation of Gondwana. Our results provide a revised macroevolutionary time scale for cichlids, imply a role for dispersal in generating the observed geographical distribution of this important model clade and add to a growing debate that questions the dominance of the vicariance paradigm of historical biogeography.

<![CDATA[Morphological and biomechanical disparity of crocodile-line archosaurs following the end-Triassic extinction]]>

Mesozoic crurotarsans exhibited diverse morphologies and feeding modes, representing considerable ecological diversity, yet macroevolutionary patterns remain unexplored. Here, we use a unique combination of morphological and biomechanical disparity metrics to quantify the ecological diversity and trophic radiations of Mesozoic crurotarsans, using the mandible as a morpho-functional proxy. We recover three major trends. First, the diverse assemblage of Late Triassic crurotarsans was morphologically and biomechanically disparate, implying high levels of ecological variation; but, following the end-Triassic extinction, disparity declined. Second, the Jurassic radiation of marine thalattosuchians resulted in very low morphological disparity but moderate variation in jaw biomechanics, highlighting a hydrodynamic constraint on mandibular form. Third, during the Cretaceous terrestrial radiations of neosuchians and notosuchians, mandibular morphological variation increased considerably. By the Late Cretaceous, crocodylomorphs evolved a range of morphologies equalling Late Triassic crurotarsans. By contrast, biomechanical disparity in the Cretaceous did not increase, essentially decoupling from morphology. This enigmatic result could be attributed to biomechanical evolution in other anatomical regions (e.g. cranium, dentition or postcranium), possibly releasing the mandible from selective pressures. Overall, our analyses reveal a complex relationship between morphological and biomechanical disparity in Mesozoic crurotarsans that culminated in specialized feeding ecologies and associated lifestyles.

<![CDATA[Grazing protozoa and the evolution of the Escherichia coli O157:H7 Shiga toxin-encoding prophage]]>

Humans play little role in the epidemiology of Escherichia coli O157:H7, a commensal bacterium of cattle. Why then does E. coli O157:H7 code for virulence determinants, like the Shiga toxins (Stxs), responsible for the morbidity and mortality of colonized humans? One possibility is that the virulence of these bacteria to humans is coincidental and these virulence factors evolved for and are maintained for other roles they play in the ecology of these bacteria. Here, we test the hypothesis that the carriage of the Stx-encoding prophage of E. coli O157:H7 increases the rate of survival of E. coli in the presence of grazing protozoa, Tetrahymena pyriformis. In the presence but not the absence of Tetrahymena, the carriage of the Stx-encoding prophage considerably augments the fitness of E. coli K-12 as well as clinical isolates of E. coli O157 by increasing the rate of survival of the bacteria in the food vacuoles of these ciliates. Grazing protozoa in the environment or natural host are likely to play a significant role in the ecology and maintenance of the Stx-encoding prophage of E. coli O157:H7 and may well contribute to the evolution of the virulence of these bacteria to colonize humans.

<![CDATA[Climatic similarity and biological exchange in the worldwide airline transportation network]]>

Recent increases in the rates of biological invasion and spread of infectious diseases have been linked to the continued expansion of the worldwide airline transportation network (WAN). Here, the global structure of the WAN is analysed in terms of climatic similarity to illuminate the risk of deliberate or accidental movements of climatically sensitive organisms around the world. From over 44 000 flight routes, we show, for each month of an average year, (i) those scheduled routes that link the most spatially distant but climatically similar airports, (ii) the climatically best-connected airports, and (iii) clusters of airports with similar climatic features. The way in which traffic volumes alter these findings is also examined. Climatic similarity across the WAN is skewed (most geographically close airports are climatically similar) but heavy-tailed (there are considerable numbers of geographically distant but climatically similar airports), with climate similarity highest in the June–August period, matching the annual peak in air traffic. Climatically matched, geographically distant airports form subnetworks within the WAN that change throughout the year. Further, the incorporation of passenger and freight traffic data highlight at greater risk of invasion those airports that are climatically well connected by numerous high capacity routes.

<![CDATA[Resolving multisensory conflict: a strategy for balancing the costs and benefits of audio-visual integration]]>

In order to maintain a coherent, unified percept of the external environment, the brain must continuously combine information encoded by our different sensory systems. Contemporary models suggest that multisensory integration produces a weighted average of sensory estimates, where the contribution of each system to the ultimate multisensory percept is governed by the relative reliability of the information it provides (maximum-likelihood estimation). In the present study, we investigate interactions between auditory and visual rate perception, where observers are required to make judgments in one modality while ignoring conflicting rate information presented in the other. We show a gradual transition between partial cue integration and complete cue segregation with increasing inter-modal discrepancy that is inconsistent with mandatory implementation of maximum-likelihood estimation. To explain these findings, we implement a simple Bayesian model of integration that is also able to predict observer performance with novel stimuli. The model assumes that the brain takes into account prior knowledge about the correspondence between auditory and visual rate signals, when determining the degree of integration to implement. This provides a strategy for balancing the benefits accrued by integrating sensory estimates arising from a common source, against the costs of conflating information relating to independent objects or events.

<![CDATA[Drd4 gene polymorphisms are associated with personality variation in a passerine bird]]>

Polymorphisms in several neurotransmitter-associated genes have been associated with variation in human personality traits. Among the more promising of such associations is that between the human dopamine receptor D4 gene (Drd4) variants and novelty-seeking behaviour. However, genetic epistasis, genotype–environment interactions and confounding environmental factors all act to obscure genotype–personality relationships. Such problems can be addressed by measuring personality under standardized conditions and by selection experiments, with both approaches only feasible with non-human animals. Looking for similar Drd4 genotype–personality associations in a free-living bird, the great tit (Parus major), we detected 73 polymorphisms (66 SNPs, 7 indels) in the P. major Drd4 orthologue. Two of the P. major Drd4 gene polymorphisms were investigated for evidence of association with novelty-seeking behaviour: a coding region synonymous single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP830) and a 15 bp indel (ID15) located 5′ to the putative transcription initiation site. Frequencies of the three Drd4 SNP830 genotypes, but not the ID15 genotypes, differed significantly between two P. major lines selected over four generations for divergent levels of ‘early exploratory behaviour’ (EEB). Strong corroborating evidence for the significance of this finding comes from the analysis of free-living, unselected birds where we found a significant association between SNP830 genotypes and differing mean EEB levels. These findings suggest that an association between Drd4 gene polymorphisms and animal personality variation predates the divergence of the avian and mammalian lineages. Furthermore, this work heralds the possibility of following microevolutionary changes in frequencies of behaviourally relevant Drd4 polymorphisms within populations where natural selection acts differentially on different personality types.

<![CDATA[Seasonality and the persistence and invasion of measles]]>

The critical community size (CCS) for measles, which separates persistent from extinction-prone populations, is arguably the best understood stochastic threshold in ecology. Using simple models, we explore a relatively neglected relationship of how the CCS scales with birth rate. A predominantly positive relationship of persistence with birth rate is complicated by the accompanying dynamical transitions of the underlying deterministic process. We show that these transitions imply a lower CCS for high birth rate less developed countries and contrary to the experience in lower birth rate, industrial countries, the CCS may increase after vaccination. We also consider the evolutionary implications of the CCS for the origin of measles; this analysis explores how the deterministic and stochastic thresholds for invasion and persistence set limits on the mechanism by which this highly infectious pathogen could have successfully colonized its human host.