Saturday, February 27, 2010
You have a much greater chance of getting sick from a tick bite today than you did 30 years ago. But a new tool might allow researchers to better understand why more ticks are making people sick.
“If you’re a health inspector and a bunch of people get food poisoning, the first thing you’d want to know is where they ate last. If you’re a disease ecologist and a bunch of ticks have a pathogen, the first thing you’d want to know is where the ticks ate last,” said Brian Allan, a post-doctoral researcher at the Tyson Research Station in St. Louis.
Allan led a team of researchers in developing a novel technology that probes the genetic contents of ticks’ gut. The tool can determine which wildlife species provided the tick’s last meal and which pathogens came along with that meal.
In the first study to use the new technology, Allan and his colleagues focused on several rapidly emerging diseases transmitted by the lone star tick. These include two pathogens responsible for a potentially fatal bacterial infection known as ehrlichiosis [ur-lick-ee-oh-sis]. In Missouri, over 200 cases of ehrlichiosis were documented last year.
Allan et al.'s study showed that about 80 percent of pathogen-positive ticks had fed on white-tailed deer. They also found that squirrels and rabbits were capable of infecting ticks at a higher rate than deer. However, since the lone star tick feeds on squirrels and rabbits less frequently, they account for a smaller percentage of infection.
Allan and his colleagues hope that the technique will shed light on theoretical questions in the field of ecology. They are especially interested in testing whether biodiversity is good for your health, a hypothesis known as “the dilution effect.”
Allan, B. F., L. S. Goessling, G. A. Storch, and R. E. Thach. 2010. Blood meal analysis to identify reservoir hosts for Amblyomma americanum ticks. Emerging Infectious Diseases 16: 433-440. DOI: 10.3201/eid1603.090911
Monday, February 22, 2010
The conservation of biological diversity is a major imperative for biologists. International agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and intergovernmental exercises, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, call upon scientists to provide evidence on the current state of biological diversity and to evaluate solutions for reducing diversity and ecosystem function loss. Critical to these efforts have been the work of ecologists, conservation biologists and ecological economists. However, seemingly missing from the conversation about the state of biodiversity knowledge has been evolutionary biologists. Are they primarily concerned with describing historical processes and mechanisms of biological change, or do they have substantive knowledge and ideas that should be viewed as a critical component of any scheme to conserve biological diversity?
In a recent paper in Evolution, Hendry and a number of coauthors convincingly make the case that evolutionary biology is a necessary component for conservation. Evolution offer four key insights that should inform conservation and policy decisions. First, they point out that evolutionary biologists are in the business of discovering and documenting biodiversity. They are the primary drivers behind long-term, sustained biological collections, because they need to know what exists in order to better understand evolutionary history. With millions of species awaiting scientific discovery, their efforts are critical to measuring biodiversity. But not only are they discovering new species and enumerating them, they are uncovering their evolutionary relationships, which gives conservationists better information about which species to prioritize. What Vane-Wright famously called 'the agony of choice', with limited resources, we need to prioritize some species over others, and their evolutionary uniqueness ought to be a factor. More than this, evolutionary biologists have developed pragmatic tools for inventorying and sharing data on biodiversity at all levels, from genes to species, which is available for prioritization.
The second key insight is that by understanding the causes of diversification, we can better understand and predict diversity responses to environmental and climatic change. By understanding how key functional traits evolve, we can develop predictions about which species or groups of species can tolerate certain perturbations. Further, research into how and why certain evolutionary groups faced extinction can help us respond to the current extinction crisis. For example, the evolutionary correspondence between coevolved mutualists, such as plants and pollinators, can be used to assess the potential for cascading extinctions. These types of analyses can help identify those groups of related species, or those possessing some trait, which make species more susceptible to extinction.
Thirdly, evolution allows for an understanding of the potential responses to human disturbance. Evolutionary change is a critical part of ecological dynamics, and as environment change can result in reduced fitness, smaller population sizes and extinction, evolution offers an adaptive response to these negative impacts. Knowing when and how populations can evolve is crucial. Evolutionary change is a product of genetic variation, immigration, population size and stochasticity, and if the ability to evolve to environmental change is key for persistence, then these evolutionary processes are also key.
Finally, evolutionary patterns and processes have important implications for ecosystem services and economic and human well-being. Both genetic and evolutionary diversity of plant communities has been shown to affect arthropod diversity, primary productivity (including work by me) and nutrient dynamics. Thus understanding how changes in diversity affect ecosystem processes should consider evolutionary processes. Further, exotic species are often cited as one of the major threats to biodiversity, and evolutionary change in exotics has been shown to increase exotic impacts on native species.
All together, these key reasons why evolution matters for conservation, mean that developing sound management plans requires considering evolution patterns and processes. We can use evolution to our benefit only if we understand how evolution shapes current dynamics. The challenge to evolutionary biologists is the same as it was for ecologists perhaps 15 to 20 years ago, to present their understanding and conservation ideas to a broader audience and to engage policy makers. To this end, the authors highlight some recent advances in incorporating evolutionary views into existing biodiversity and conservation programmes –most notably into DIVERSITAS.
Just like ecological processes and dynamics cannot be fully understood without appreciating evolution ancestry or dynamics, developing an extensive, expansive conservation strategies must take into account evolution. I hope that this paper signals a new era of a synthesis between ecology and evolution, which produces precise, viable conservation strategies.
Hendry, A., Lohmann, L., Conti, E., Cracraft, J., Crandall, K., Faith, D., HÃ¤user, C., Joly, C., Kogure, K., Larigauderie, A., MagallÃ³n, S., Moritz, C., Tillier, S., Zardoya, R., Prieur-Richard, A., Walther, B., Yahara, T., & Donoghue, M. (2010). EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY IN BIODIVERSITY SCIENCE, CONSERVATION, AND POLICY: A CALL TO ACTION Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.00947.x
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Monday, February 8, 2010
Such is the case for three recent animal attacks in Canada. In late October, 2009 in Nova Scotia, a raising 19-year old folk singer was killed by a couple of coyotes while hiking. It is difficult to find meaning in such a horrendous death, but the narrative, told by reporters, was essentially to rest assured that one of the coyotes had been killed and the other was being tracked and would be destroyed. There were two cougar attacks in early January, 2010 in British Columbia, that basically ended with the same reassurance. In the first, a boy was attacked and his pet golden retriever courageously saved his life. A police officer arrived a shot the cougar which was mauling the dog -an obviously legitimate response, and the news story again reassures us that the animal was destroyed. And don't worry the hero dog survived. In the second cougar attack, another boy was attacked, and this time his mother saved his life. But again the story narrative ended by reassuring us that the guilty cougar, and another cat for good measure, were destroyed the next day.
After reading these stories, I asked myself two things. Why is our response to destroy predators that attack? And why do we need to be reassured that this has happened? In defence of the predators, they are just doing what their instincts tell them to do, and most often their only mistake is that they selected their prey poorly. But the reality is that there are only 2-4 cougar attacks per year and only 18 fatalities over the past 100 years. Why do we fear such a low probability event? In contrast, automobile accidents are the leading cause of death in children under 12 in North America. Thousands of people die, and millions injured in car accidents every year in North America. Recently, in Toronto, were I live, 10 pedestrians were killed in 10 days, yet my heart doesn't race when I cross a street. If our fears and responses to human injury and death reflected the actual major risks, we would invoke restrictive rules regarding automobile use.
We believe that we can live with nature in our backyard. But when that close contact results in an animal attack, human fear seems to dictate an irrational response. Do we really expect predators to obey our rules? Can we punish them enough to effectively tame them? We cannot, and I hope that our approaches to dealing with human-animal conflict can better deal with animal attacks, in a way that does not subjugate large predators to whims of our fears.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
In a recent paper, Marchetti and colleagues answer part of the question. They experimentally manipulate a pathogenic bacteria and observe it turning into a symbiont. They transferred a plasmid from the symbiotic nitrogen fixing Cupriavidus taiwanensis into Ralstonia solanacearum and infected Mimosa roots with it. Plasmid transfer among distinct bacteria species is common and referred to horizontal genetic transfer (as opposed to vertical, which is the transfer to daughter cells). The presence of the plasmid caused R. solanacearum to quickly evolve into a root-nodulating symbiont. Two regulatory genes lost function, and this caused R. solanacearum to form nodules and to impregnate Mimosa root cells.
This extremely novel experiment reveals how horizontal gene transfer can supply the impetus for rapid evolution from being a pathogen to a symbiont. More importantly it reveals that sometimes just a few steps are required for this transition and how distantly-related bacterial species can acquire symbiotic behaviors.
Marchetti, M., Capela, D., Glew, M., Cruveiller, S., Chane-Woon-Ming, B., Gris, C., Timmers, T., Poinsot, V., Gilbert, L., Heeb, P., Médigue, C., Batut, J., & Masson-Boivin, C. (2010). Experimental Evolution of a Plant Pathogen into a Legume Symbiont PLoS Biology, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000280
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
In an 'Idea and Perspective' paper in Ecology Letters, Louie Yang and Volker Rudolf set out a new framework to examine the effects of phenological shifts on species interactions. They argue that one cannot understand or predict the fitness consequences of a phenology shift without knowing how interacting species' phenologies are also influenced by environmental changes. The consequences of phenological shifts are changes in fitness, and the question is: how would one go about assessing the fitness effects of phenological changes on interactions? This is where this paper really hits its stride. Yang and Rudolf set out a new conceptual framework for studying the fitness consequences of phenological shifts. They make the case that an experimental approach is required to test the three likely scenarios. The first is that there are no changes in phenology -that is, measuring the fitness levels of the two interacting species under stable conditions. Second, you induce an experimental shift in the timing of one of the species. For example, in a plant-herbivore interaction, germinate the plant earlier and when the herbivore normally has access to the plant, the plant will be older. What are the fitness changes associated with this shift? Finally, you can shift the timing of the other species relative to the first. In our example, the herbivore has access to younger plants and again are there fitness consequences?
Yang and Rudolf call the full combination of possible fitness effects, across a number of timing mismatches, 'the ontogeny-phenology landscape'. By mapping fitness changes across this ontogeny-phenology landscape, researchers can offer better predictions, on top of just changes in range size or habitat use, about the possible affects of climate change. The obvious question, and Yang and Rudolf acknowledge this, is how to extend two-species ontogeny-phenology to multi-species communities. Of course, extending two-species interactions to communities is a question that plagues most of community ecology, but I think the solution is that researchers who know their systems often have intuition about the major players, and thus those species where phenology shifts should have disproportionate effects on other species. Such species could be the place to start. Another strategy would be a food web type approach, where species are lumped into broader trophic groups and we ask how shifts in certain trophic groups affect other groups.
Regardless of how to extend this framework to multispecies assemblages, I see this paper as likely to be very influential. It gives researches a new focus and framework, where specific predictions about climate change can be made.
Yang, L., & Rudolf, V. (2010). Phenology, ontogeny and the effects of climate change on the timing of species interactions Ecology Letters, 13 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01402.x
Thursday, January 14, 2010
In a recent paper in PLoS ONE, Genung and colleagues test whether plant genotypic diversity affects pollinator visits. They use an experimental system set-up by Greg Crutsinger that combines multiple genotypes of the goldenrod, Solidago altissima, and record pollinator visits over two years. Experimental plots contained 1, 3, 6, or 12 genotypes of S. altissima. After accounting for differences in abundance, Genung et al. show that as genotypic diversity increases, both pollinator richness and number of visits to the plot significantly increase. This increase is greater than expectations of randomly simulated assemblages combining proportional pollinator visits from monocultures.
The previous research at the species-level has made a persuasive rationale to protect species diversity in order to maintain ecosystem functioning. Now, research like this is making a case that there are consequences for not explicitly considering genetic diversity in conservation planning and habitat restoration.
Genung, M., Lessard, J., Brown, C., Bunn, W., Cregger, M., Reynolds, W., Felker-Quinn, E., Stevenson, M., Hartley, A., Crutsinger, G., Schweitzer, J., & Bailey, J. (2010). Non-Additive Effects of Genotypic Diversity Increase Floral Abundance and Abundance of Floral Visitors PLoS ONE, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008711
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
In the quest to understand species invasions, we often try to link the abundance and distribution of invaders to underlying ecological processes. For example, oft-studied are the links between exotic diversity and native richness or environmental heterogeneity. Seemingly independently, research into how specific land use or management activities affect invasion dynamics is also fairly common. While both research strategies are of fundamental importance, not often recognized, or at least explicitly studied, is that both ecological patterns and management activities simultaneously affect invasion success. Thus a truly integrative approach to understanding invader success must take into account variation in ecological communities and abiotic resource avalibility as well as land use patterns at multiple spatial scales. Such an approach is necessary if ecologists wish to predict potential invader abundance, spread and impact.
Diez et al. Examine how environmental and management heterogeneity interact to influence patterns of Hieracium pilosella (Asteraceae) inasions in the South Island of New Zealand. The spread of H. Pilosella in New Zealand is threatening native habitats (tussock fields) and the livestock grazing industry. Diez et al. Asked how environmental and management regimes affect H. Pilosella abundance and distribution across six large farms on the South Island. This is an interesting and important question, not just because they are examining how human-caused and ecological variation interact to affect H. Pilosella dynamics, but also because these sources are heterogeneity are realized at different spatial scales.
Diez et al. show that the abundance and distribution of H. Pilosella was significantly affected by the interaction of habitat type (i.e., short vs. tall tussocks) and farm management strategies (i.e., fertilization and grazing rates). At larger scales, H. Pilosella was more abundant in tall tussock habitats and was unaffected by fertilization, while in short tussocks, it was less abundant in fertilized patches. At small scales, H. Pilosella was less likely to be found in short tussocks with high exotic grass cover and high productivity (measured as site soil moisture and solar radiation). Conversely, in tall tussocks, H. Pilosella was more likely to be found on sites with high natural productivity. Diez et al. were able to tease these complex causal mechanism apart by using Bayesian multilevel linear models, for which they included example R code in an online appendix.
While it is a truism in ecology to say that heterogeneity affects ecological patterns, this paper deserves mention because they convincingly show that the spread of noxious exotic plants in a complex landscape, can potentially predicted by understanding the invader success in different habitat types and land management strategies. In their case they show how human activities, which were not designed to affect H. Pilosella, can strongly affect abundance in different habitat types. This type of approach to understanding invader dynamics can potentially arm managers with the ability to use existing land use strategies to predict how and where further invader targeting would be most useful.
Diez, J., Buckley, H., Case, B., Harsch, M., Sciligo, A., Wangen, S., & Duncan, R. (2009). Interacting effects of management and environmental variability at multiple scales on invasive species distributions Journal of Applied Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01725.x