Lay Summaries Archive

Read Lay Summaries from previous volumes of Functional Ecology here:

Early View Lay Summaries


Subdigital adhesive pad morphology varies in relation to structural habitat use in the Namib Day Gecko.

Clint E. Collins, Anthony P. Russell, and Timothy E. Higham Rhoptropus afer pauses before ascending a granite outcrop.

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Locomotion is a quintessential aspect of animal life. Effective locomotor performance is crucial for many important tasks such as prey capture, mating, and predator evasion. Gecko locomotion is fascinating because of the specialized adhesive capability that allows them to live on vertical and inverted surfaces. Adhesion is finely controlled by the subdigital toe pad and the millions of microscopic, hair-like structures known as setae that are located on the bottom of each toe pad. However, this specialized behaviour and the adhesive system comes at a cost – running away from predators on level surfaces may be affected owing to the complexity and timing of adhering and detaching to surfaces during locomotion. Quantifying the interplay between escape behaviour and locomotor morphology across habitats that vary in structural composition could reveal how selection acts on locomotion at local levels.

Our study found that in habitats where escape behaviour relies on flatter surfaces, a species of gecko, Rhoptropus afer, the Namib Day Gecko, has exhibited a greatly reduced adhesive morphological system. We investigated the impact of habitat variation and escape behaviour on morphology, including the adhesive system, of Rhoptropus afer, a diurnal and cursorial (adapted to running) gecko from Namibia. Substrate incline and topographical variation are likely important for this pad-bearing gecko due to the trade-off between adhering and sprinting (i.e. using adhesion results in decreased sprint speed) that is triggered by certain inclines. We corroborate the hypothesis that the adhesive system exhibits the greatest degree of reduction in populations that utilize the flattest terrain during an escape. Our findings suggest that the adhesive apparatus is detrimental to rapid locomotion on relatively horizontal surfaces, and may thus be counterproductive to the evasion of predators in such situations.

Image caption: Rhoptropus afer pauses before ascending a granite outcrop.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


How to best assess the cold tolerance of Drosophila.

Jonas Lembcke Andersen, Tommaso Manenti, Jesper Givskov Sørensen, Heath Andrew MacMillan, Volker Loeschcke and Johannes OvergaardImage supplied by authors.

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Insects represent around three quarters of the world’s named species and they often play an important role in human society as pollinators, agricultural pests or carriers of disease. Insects’ distribution across the globe is partially limited by their ability to survive cold. In order to predict changes in the patterns of insect distribution across the world we need to understand how cold affects insects and how some insects survive for hours below 0°C while others die after only short exposures to low temperatures.

Many of the studies done on insect cold tolerance (temperatures that limits insects’ ability to survive, reproduce, or migrate) have been performed with fruit flies (Drosophila) utilizing several different methods to assess cold tolerance. In this study we evaluated the accuracy of cold tolerance estimates obtained using five commonly used methods. We assessed the cold tolerance of 14 Drosophila species using each of the 5 methods. An average natural latitudinal distribution and an expected minimum temperature exposure was determined for each of the species using databases with thousands of observations. These parameters were then correlated to each of the five cold tolerance measurements to investigate which method was best correlated to the actual distribution and minimum temperature exposures of the 14 species in the wild.

We found that the temperature where the flies lost their ability to move (chill coma onset), when ramping down the temperature, had a strong correlation to the environmental variables. So did measurements of survival after 2 hours of low temperature exposure (lethal temperature) as well as survival time at milder low temperatures (lethal time). However, the time it took the flies to recover from cold shock (chill coma recovery time) had a weaker correlation to the environmental variables and supercooling point, the temperature where the flies freezes over, had the weakest correlation to distribution and estimated temperature exposure.

Considering the amount of time involved and the difficulty of making the different measurements, we found that chill coma onset and lethal temperature are superior measurements when estimating cold tolerance in Drosophila.

Image caption: Image supplied by authors.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


Afforestation effects on understory shrubs in a semiarid Mediterranean ecosystem.

Cristina Moreno-Gutiérrez, Giovanna Battipaglia, Paolo Cherubini, Antonio Delgado Huertas and José Ignacio QuerejetaRhamnus lycioides radial growth rings. Photo courtesy of authors.

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Pinus halepensis (Aleppo pine) plantations cover extensive areas of the western Mediterranean Region, and are often characterized by a monospecific tree overstory with a sparse, depauperate and species-poor shrub understory. Rhamnus lycioides is one of the few woody shrub species capable of colonizing P. halepensis plantations in the drier parts of the region. Its presence in the understory enhances the structural complexity, functional diversity and resilience against disturbance of semiarid pine plantations. Understanding the processes that allow tree-shrub coexistence in these severely water limited environments is crucial to the design and adoption of forest management practices aimed at fostering colonization by late-successional plant species, and at buffering the negative impacts of climate change on these man-made plant communities.

We assessed the long-term net effects of P. halepensis plantations on the performance of the understory R. lycioides shrubs, and evaluated how the sign and strength of the interaction are modulated by the high inter-annual climate variability of this semiarid ecosystem. We compared the growth-rings widths and growth-ring oxygen and carbon isotopic composition of understory R. lycioides shrubs growing in a dense plantation of P. halepensis with those of shrubs growing in a nearby open woodland with widely scattered trees. We found that shrubs in pine plantations showed lower radial growth and greater water stress than those in open woodlands. The strong competitive effects of P. halepensis on understory R. lycioides were most evident in wet, productive years, whereas in very dry years there were indications of a facilitative effect of planted P. halepensis canopies on understory shrubs. Within pine plantations, understory shrubs growing at shorter distances from planted trees were forced to rely on more superficial and ephemeral soil water sources, which increased their drought stress and also interfered with nutrient uptake. Competition by P. halepensis on R. lycioides clearly outweighed facilitation in the long-term, especially during wet years, thus compromising the ability of understory shrubs in semiarid pine plantations to cope with climate change. In conclusion, pine afforestation strongly reduces water and nutrient availability for understory shrubs in drylands, with potential long-term consequences for ecosystem biodiversity, structure and functioning.

Image caption: Rhamnus lycioides radial growth rings. Photo courtesy of authors.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


Tree phenology responses to winter chilling, spring warming, at north and south range limits.

James S. Clark, Carl Salk, Jerry Melillo, and Jacqueline MohanPhoto of tree at different stages. Image provided by authors.

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A warming climate may lengthen growing seasons in the future, increasing production of forests and favoring those species that best exploit the longer season. However, plants from temperate climates often require a cold period (‘vernalization’) before spring budbreak can begin. There has been debate concerning when and how much warming will benefit different types of plants, depending on species differences and at different locations within the species range. Within species, northern populations have been expected to respond most due to the fact that growing seasons are relatively short. It has also been argued that species most sensitive to spring temperature may show little overall response to warming, because the accelerating effect of warm springs will be offset by the delaying effect of warm winters—the ‘chilling requirement’ needed before budbreak can start in spring. These questions remain because models of spring development have been unable to use information on the continuous response to temperature variation through time.

We provide a new model for budbreak that makes use of continuous responses to warming throughout the growing season. Applied to a large experimental warming study near northern and southern boundaries of 15 tree species in the eastern deciduous forest of the US, in North Carolina and Massachusetts, we show a detailed time course for the onset of growth in spring, including vernalization during winter. Where traditional models find little evidence of a chilling effect (most are insignificant or have the wrong sign), the continuous development model finds evidence of chilling effects in most species. Contrary to the current views, we find southern populations are most responsive to warming. A stronger response in the southern range could allow residents to resist northward migration of immigrants as climate warms.

Image caption: Photo of tree at different stages. Image provided by authors.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


Long-lived mothers reduce the negative effect of old age on their sons' lifespan in a seed beetle.

Elena C. Berg, Martin I. Lind, Ghazal Alavioon and Alexei A. Maklakov Seed beetle. Photo by Markus Rehnberg.

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The offspring of older parents often have a reduced lifespan when compared to offspring of younger parents, a phenomenon that is widespread in the animal kingdom, including humans. Although the reasons for this effect may vary between species, it can generally be seen as a manifestation of ageing.

However, parents can also differ in lifespan, and two parents that have lived for the same time may differ in biological age, since physical decline may be delayed in a genetically long-lived parent. Therefore, we asked whether the negative effect of old parental age on offspring lifespan would be smaller when a genetically long-lived parent produced the offspring.

We tested this hypothesis using the seed beetle Callosobruchus maculatus, a common pest of grain stores that can easily be maintained in the laboratory. In a previous experiment, we created long and short-lived lines by experimental selection for male lifespan, where a 40% difference in male lifespan, and also a correlated response in female lifespan, evolved between the lines. Now, we let mothers from these lines lay eggs at different ages, and measured the development time and lifespan of their offspring.

We found that the lifespan of the offspring decreased, and their development time increased, with increased maternal age. This effect was partly caused by what we interpret as decreased maternal provisioning to the egg with increased age. Moreover, the negative effect of old mothers differed between the long- and short-lived lines, but this difference was found only in the lifespan of sons. While sons were severely affected by later maternal age in the short-lived lines, the effect of maternal age was much smaller in the long-lived lines. Thus, the negative effect of old mothers on offspring lifespan was smaller if the mother had a long genetic lifespan.

The reason why sons were more affected than daughters is not known, but since males of this beetle are known to be more sensitive to environmental stress, it is possible that they suffer more than daughters from poor maternal provisioning.

Image caption: Seed beetle. Photo by Markus Rehnberg.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


Wood varies dramatically during tropical forest succession.

Benjamin T. Plourde, Vanessa Boukili and Robin ChazdonPlourde processing wood cores in second-growth forests at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica. Photograph by Robin Chazdon.

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A central question in ecology asks how diverse communities assemble. This is especially profound in tropical rain forests, where more than one hundred species of trees can be found within two acres. A common approach to understanding how plant communities assemble is the measurement of traits related to how individuals occupy their niche. In our study, we sought to understand how the density of wood (e.g. softwood vs. hardwood) varies among the trees in forests regenerating from pastures in Costa Rica.

We measured the wood density of coexisting species across eight forests of different ages. We recorded variation in wood density at every level: within trees, among individuals of the same species, among the species of a forest, across forests and between second- and old-growth forests. The wood density of many species in all forest ages increased over time. For example, a tree that begins life with relatively soft wood similar to pines can produce a much harder wood akin to oaks after just 30 years.

For some time, researchers have supposed that this shift is an adaptation of species in young forests and less prevalent in the climax species of old-growth forests. We show that both second-growth specialist trees and second-growth forests have more dramatic changes in density while having lower density wood overall than their old-growth counterparts. Our approach is unique in that species specializations were determined statistically based on where they are found.

A current goal of many organizations is to reforest abandoned lands and reclaim lost ecosystem services. Forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere in plant tissues. To quantify this service, scientists estimate the plant biomass in an area using models that incorporate individual tree sizes and almost always their wood densities. To date, these estimates ignore within-tree density variation. We show the degree to which this omission affects biomass estimation. Forest stands dominated by species with large changes in wood density may have their tree biomass underestimated by more than 3.5%.

While variation in wood density at the forest level is mediated by species composition, variation among and within species is likely due to a number of drivers and is a subject of active research.

Image caption: Plourde processing wood cores in second-growth forests at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica. Photograph by Robin Chazdon.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


Long-lasting effects of fire management on the population structure of different savanna tree species.

Shaun Levick, Claire Baldeck and Greg Asner Fire on the savanna. Photo provided by authors.

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Understanding how different fire regimes modify vegetation structure is important for sustaining ecosystem processes and conserving biodiversity in savanna landscapes. We know that fires markedly alter vegetation structure, by preventing small shrubs from growing into tall trees, but we lack understanding of how individual tree species respond to different fire frequencies. To advance current knowledge, we used airborne technology (Carnegie Airborne Observatory, to map individual trees across entire savanna hillslopes in 2008. Our airborne mapping system consisted of a LiDAR sensor (laser ranging) to measure the height of the individual trees, and a hyperspectral sensor to record how the tree canopies reflected and absorbed sunlight. We used the data from these two sensors to classify the species of trees that we had mapped. Knowing both the height and the species of a large numbers of individual trees is very powerful for ecological investigation, as it enables analysis of population structure – by exploring the height class distribution of thousands of individuals of different species. We used our unique dataset to contrast the height class distribution of three dominant savanna tree species (Acacia nigrescens – knobthorn, Sclerocarya birrea – marula, Combretum apiculatum – red-bushwillow) in two adjacent landscapes with fire histories that differed from 1970-1990 but have been similar for the last 20 years. We repeated our airborne survey in 2012 to track the fate of individual trees over the four-year period. We found that a history of higher fire frequency strongly reduced the recruitment of marula trees in the 5-8 m height ranges, but promoted growth of red-bushwillow shrubs. We also found higher rates of treefall in the landscape with a history of higher fire frequency. Knobthorn trees showed the highest rates of loss with over 40% of individuals in the 6-9 m height classes toppled (most likely due to utilization by elephant). These patterns suggest interactive effects of fire history and elephant on tree population structure. Fire management actions taken many decades ago are still influencing vegetation structure and dynamics today. We need greater consideration of time lags and historical context in understanding and conserving ecological systems.

Image caption: Fire on the savanna. Photo provided by authors.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


Massive armature trumps running for stag beetles.

Jana Goyens, Joris Dirckx and Peter AertsPicture of a Cyclommatus metallifer male.

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Stag beetles are renowned for their spectacular male-male battles. In these scuffles, males fight each other with their long jaws over mates or desirable stumps of rotten wood. The jaw morphology is shaped by sexual selection and in some species, they can become as long as their own body. Intuitively, one would expect that such large structures may hamper their running, although some other insects are known to carry heavy loads remarkable efficiently (e.g. leaf-cutter ants or horned beetles).

We made high speed video recordings of male and female stag beetles running on a miniature running track. By tracing the 3D path of their body, we derived the energy cost for both sexes. Running a certain distance turned out to be an impressive 40% more costly for the males than for the females (who have normal, small-sized mandibles). This is a considerable ecological cost of the heavy jaws and their outsized musculature.

An increased energy cost is not the only nuisance of the heavy heads of male stag beetles. While the males were running on the running track, we saw them tumble over and bump onto the ground with their heads regularly. We quantified this instability by tracking the centre of mass of the beetle bodies. As long as this stays above the triangular base that is formed by the legs that stand on the ground, the beetle is statically stable. However, we saw that males go through an unstable period twice every running cycle, while females almost always stay within the safe leg base. Although the male legs are 27% longer than those of females, they do not sprawl out their legs to enlarge their leg base. Instead, their only stability enhancing strategy appears to be the timely planting of the next leg tripod.

Male stag beetles are very specialised for their aggressive encounters. The resulting heavy heads do however compromise their running capacity: it is energetically costly and they continuously risk falling over, which probably implies a fitness cost when they search for mates or try to escape from predators.

Image caption: Picture of a Cyclommatus metallifer male.
This article is available in Early View here.


Temperature sensitivity of seed germination shapes species distribution patterns.

Sergey Rosbakh & Peter PoschlodPrimula minima is a typical alpine species, those seeds germinate under relatively high temperature.

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Temperature has been long recognized as a major factor driving plant distribution along latitudinal or altitudinal gradients. Using this correlation, a large number of vegetation-climate models have been developed to explain plant distribution patterns at different scales. Although these models have a high informative value, they rarely provide information on the mechanisms by which temperature shapes species’ distributions.

Numerous experimental studies have previously shown that temperature has a strong influence on plant recruitment, but aspects of seed ecology are still rarely considered as explanations for the distribution patterns of plant species. Using data on seed germination along a temperature gradient for 49 species originating from contrasting climatic conditions, we tested whether minimum temperature of seed germination (Tmin) is a direct correlate of species distribution ranges along a temperature gradient. The results of our study indicate that Tmin is strongly negatively correlated with habitat temperatures. Seeds of species from habitats with higher mean annual temperatures have low Tmin values, suggesting that their germination may begin shortly after snowmelt. With decreasing habitat temperatures, which occur along altitudinal or latitudinal gradients, frequency of late frosts as well as duration of periods with temperatures negative for seedling establishment increase. Therefore, in order to reduce this risk, germination is triggered by relatively high ambient temperatures (high Tmin values) in late spring or early summer, which indicate the onset of favourable conditions for seedling survival.

We suggest that this finding will help to reach a better understanding of existing patterns of plant species distribution and will improve the accuracy and specificity of predictions of vegetation shifts under global change scenarios. In the last decade, a strong focus has been placed on the modelling of vegetation-climate interactions. However, these models still suffer from an essential lack of temperature-specific ecological data and a mechanistic understanding of how environmental factors shape current species distributions. The Tmin values could easily be integrated into models as they can quantitatively estimate the success of recruitment under certain climatic conditions and are technically easy to obtain (in contrast to other stages of the plant life cycle).


Image caption: Primula minima is a typical alpine species, those seeds germinate under relatively high temperature.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


Divergent functioning of Proteaceae species: the South American Embothrium coccineum displays a combination of adaptive traits to survive in high-phosphorus soils.

Mabel Delgado, Lalith Suriyagoda, Alejandra Zúñiga-Feest, Fernando Borie & Hans LambersEmbothrium coccineum, like most Proteaceae, produces cluster roots when grown at a low phosphorus supply (left).  The specialised root structures are suppressed at a high phosphorus supply (right).

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Proteaceae in south-western Australia thrive on phosphorus-impoverished soils, employing a phosphorus-mining strategy involving cluster roots, which release citrate, malate or other organic acids that can release phosphorus from rocks. Some develop symptoms of phosphorus toxicity even at slightly elevated soil phosphorus concentrations, due to their low capacity to down-regulate phosphorus uptake. In contrast, Proteaceae species in Chile, e.g., Embothrium coccineum, occur on volcanic soils, which contain high levels of total phosphorus, but phosphorus availability is low. We hypothesised that the functioning of cluster roots of E. coccineum differs from that of south-western Australian Proteaceae, in accordance with the difference in soil phosphorus status. With more phosphorus to be gained from the soil with high levels of total phosphorus, we expected and found less investment in biomass of cluster roots, but more release of citrate by these structures. We also hypothesised and confirmed that E. coccineum regulates its phosphorus-uptake capacity, avoiding phosphorus toxicity when grown at elevated phosphorus levels. We show that E. coccineum allocates at least five times less biomass to cluster roots that release at least nine times more organic acids per unit cluster root weight compared with south-western Australian species. The highest phosphorus supply caused some growth inhibition and high leaf phosphorus concentration, but no visible signs of phosphorus toxicity in leaves, as expressed in many south-western Australian Proteaceae. This combination of traits indicates divergent functioning of Proteaceae species from southern South America, exposed to frequent phosphorus input due to volcanic activity, in contrast with the functioning of south-western Australian Proteaceae species that thrive on severely phosphorus-impoverished ancient soils. These traits could explain the functioning of E. coccineum on soils that are rich in total phosphorus, but with a low concentration of available phosphorus.

Image caption: Embothrium coccineum, like most Proteaceae, produces cluster roots when grown at a low phosphorus supply (left). The specialised root structures are suppressed at a high phosphorus supply (right).
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


How is the UV-Visible colouration of crab spiders produced?

Felipe M. Gawryszewski, Debra Birch, Darrell J. Kemp and Marie E. HerbersteinSpider abdomen after the removal of the cuticle, showing the guanine crystals that reflect ultraviolet light. Photo taken under the dissecting microscope.

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The functions of colouration in animals, such as camouflage, warning colouration and mate attraction, have been extensively studied. However, for many organisms we do not know the components that form the observed colour and how these components interact. Crab spiders (family Thomisidae) are non-web building spiders that hunt prey with their long pair of forelegs. The most charismatic species ambush bees and other pollinators on flowers. Interestingly, these species often have a body colour that matches the colour of the flowers, and have the ability to change their body colouration over a few days. In addition, a few species are able to produce a colour that includes the ultraviolet (UV) range of the light spectrum. Although humans do not see at this range, most invertebrates do. Surprisingly, spiders seem to be luring their prey, because some bees are attracted to flowers that have a UV-reflecting crab spider on it. In this study we looked at three different crab spiders to try to understand the mechanism by which colour is formed and, especially, how the UV part of the colour is produced. We found that three components interact to form the observed colour: the cuticle (the external invertebrate skin), a middle layer (hypodermis) containing pigments/crystals and, below, guanine crystals. The cuticle, contrary to what has been previously argued, is not transparent, and therefore contributes to the colour formation. Changes in pigments and/or crystals generate the colour change we observe in these spiders. Guanine crystals, present in all spiders we analysed, function as a white background against which components in the hypodermis appear. Moreover, these crystals strongly reflect UV light and therefore are the source of UV in these spiders. In UV spiders the hypodermis lacked pigments/crystals, exposing the UV reflective guanine crystals. Non-UV spiders, on the contrary, had hypodermal pigments/crystals that filtered the UV light reflected by the underlying guanine crystals. Thus, relatively simple changes are necessary to produce the observed variation of crab spider colouration. Also, our findings suggest that the evolution of UV in crab spiders may have only involved the exposure of the underlying guanine crystals.

Image caption: Spider abdomen after the removal of the cuticle, showing the guanine crystals that reflect ultraviolet light. Photo taken under the dissecting microscope.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


The interaction between genotype and juvenile and adult density environment in shaping multidimensional reaction norms of behaviour.

Chang S. Han and Robert C. BrooksTenagogerris euphrosyne, photo provided by authors.

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The effect of environments on behavioural expression has been shown to depend on when individuals experience the environments. Thus various environments at different life stages can interact with each other to affect the expression of behaviours and generate complex patterns of behavioural plasticity. The complexity gets more extreme when one considers that genetically different individuals may respond differently to the same environments. We housed full-sibling brother males of Australian water strider species (Tenagogerris Euphrosyne), semi-aquatic insects that live on the water surface, at a range of juvenile and adult densities. Then we tested how density environments at different life stages influence mating- and foraging-related behaviours and their genetic variation. We studied these effects on four different behaviours (exploration of a new environment, dispersal, same-sex sexual behaviour and attempts to remount a female after being dislodged) in order to test whether the environmental effect differed among behaviours. Our study showed that both juvenile and adult density interacted to affect expression of behaviour, but the magnitude of its genetic variation in plasticity depended on the specific traits. There was little genetic variation in the behavioural response to density at different life stages, other than same-sex sexual behaviour. Our study highlights that environments at different life stages can interact to affect the expression of behaviour, and do so in different ways for different behaviours.

Image caption: Tenagogerris Euphrosyne, photo provided by authors.
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. You can find the As Accepted version here.


Are leaf functional traits “invariant” with plant size, and what is “invariance” anyway?

Charles A. Price, Ian J. Wright, David D. Ackerly, Ülo Niinemets, Peter B. Reich, and Erik J. VeneklaasWillow leaves.

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Many studies have shown that as plant size increases, investment in different plant organs (leaves, stems), or in how plants fill space (height, canopy spread), differs considerably across plant species. Many studies have also shown that traits related to photosynthesis and growth vary systematically together. We explore the intersection of these two broad areas by exploring the idea that leaf traits related to growth and photosynthesis may not vary systematically as a function of increasing plant height across land plants. This lack of variability has been described by some as “invariance”. Unfortunately, leaf trait invariance as a concept is neither well defined nor understood, and has never been critically examined.

We used a global plant trait dataset to evaluate whether nine leaf traits can be considered as “invariant” as a function of the maximum height of different plant species. We examined this relationship within different plant growth forms, and across broad taxonomic groups. We also examine whether these relationships depended on the habitat or biome that the plant species were found in.

We suggest that invariance is an intuitive concept, but one for which a concrete statistical definition is difficult to define. To that end, we propose five simple criteria that researchers can use to help identify when traits can be considered to be invariant.

Using these five criteria, we show that eight of the nine leaf traits we examined can be considered invariant with respect to plant height. This basic relationship didn’t change when we looked within and between herbaceous and woody plant groups; flowering plants and conifers; and within most biome and habitat types. One trait however, did increase with plant height, that of individual leaf area.

These results demonstrate that generally, leaf traits related to photosynthesis and growth do not change systematically across species of increasing height. This finding is useful to theoreticians and modellers who want to invoke ideal plants with average leaf properties that don’t depend on plant size.

Image caption: Willow leaves.
This paper can be found online in its As Accepted form (not typeset or proofed) here.


Colour in a new light: a spectral perspective on the quantitative genetics of carotenoid coloration.

Simon R. Evans & Ben C. SheldonMale great tit (credit: Simon Evans).

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Animal coloration is a complex trait to measure and analyse because it is dependent on the relative amounts of light from across the visible spectrum. Reflectance spectra describe what proportion of light from across the spectrum an object reflects. However, because every reflectance spectrum represents a large amount of data, biologists typically summarise them based on the key features they are interested in. For example, we study the yellow feathers of great tits and have previously calculated a measure of 'yellowness'. Using this, we showed that 'yellowness' of the feathers is partly heritable, such that strongly yellow parents have offspring that also grow vividly coloured feathers, whilst dully-coloured parents have dull offspring. However, by condensing the reflectance spectrum into a single value, we have lost all other information, so this approach is highly subjective. In contrast, reflectance is a physical property of an object and therefore independent of lighting or the observer (e.g., human versus bird). Furthermore we know that this colour patch consists of a combination of carotenoid pigments and a highly reflective background and, because these two components have different effects on reflectance (carotenoids absorb only blue-to-violet light, whilst background reflectance has a more constant effect across the spectrum), a spectral perspective would allow us to diagnose which component is influenced by a given effect.

We partitioned the bird-visible spectrum (human-visible light, plus ultraviolet light) into a large number of very narrow segments ('wavebands'), and analysed each of these independently but in parallel. For each waveband, we estimated how much variation in reflectance could be attributed to genetic effects that individuals inherit from their parents, and how much could be explained by their environmental experiences. By arranging the results for each waveband in sequence, we could visualise how these effects change across the spectrum. This showed how the heritable effects on 'yellowness' we have described previously are achieved through the carotenoid content of feathers being heritable, whilst the background reflectance component is more sensitive to environmental effects. This heritability indicates that the carotenoid content of feathers – and thus their yellow coloration – will evolve in response to selection, and this could help explain the diversity of carotenoid-based colours we see amongst animal species.

Image caption: Male great tit (credit: Simon Evans).
This paper can be found online in its As Accepted form (not typeset or proofed) here.


Aerobic scope predicts dominance during early life in a tropical damselfish.

Shaun S. Killen, Matthew D. Mitchell, Jodie L. Rummer, Douglas P. Chivers, Maud C. O. Ferrari, Mark G. Meekan & Mark I. McCormickPhoto provided by authors.

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Members of the same species often come into conflict over important resources, but knowledge of the physiological traits that make some individuals better competitors than others remains elusive. For example, individuals with an increased capacity to perform physically demanding behaviours during conflicts may be better fighters or be more likely to become dominant. A potential means to estimate this physical capacity is by measuring an animal’s aerobic scope, which is its ability to increase aerobic metabolism above its resting level to perform physiological tasks, including exercise.

We examined links between aerobic scope and aggression in juvenile Ambon damselfish. In many tropical damselfishes, competition for territory is intense after young fish migrate to the coral reefs where they settle. Predation can be so extreme during this time that individuals prioritise safety over food availability when selecting territories, with dominant fish claiming the best shelters from predators. Notably, adjacent territories can be close to each other and fish are likely to repeatedly encounter the same rival. Whether a challenger is a familiar neighbour or an unfamiliar stranger could affect the amount of aggression displayed toward them because each type of competitor could represent a different level of threat.

We found that fish with a higher aerobic scope were more likely to become dominant when competing in pairs for access to coral in the laboratory. However, the physical effort displayed during fights typically did not approach that displayed by fish during exhaustive exercise, suggesting individuals do not fully utilise their aerobic scope during aggressive encounters. A greater aerobic scope may, however, allow faster post-contest recovery.

Fish that lost fights showed a rise in metabolic rate that was likely due to the effects of social stress. Interestingly, dominant individuals also showed an increase in metabolic rate when later exposed to the same competitor after a period of separation, but displayed no metabolic response to a strange fish not previously encountered. This not only suggests that fish recognise previous competitors, but also indicates an energetic cost of stress associated with the maintenance of dominance status. An additional benefit of an increased aerobic scope may be an enhanced capacity to cope with socially-induced stress.

These results show that aerobic scope is associated with dominance during competitions for territory in young Ambon damselfish. Fish that have a higher aerobic scope could therefore obtain the best territories, and possibly be favoured by natural selection.

Image caption: Photo provided by authors.
This paper can be found online in its As Accepted form (not typeset or proofed) here.


Why do some plant species become so successful and wide-spread away from home?.

Yan Sun, Heinz Müller-Schärer and Urs SchaffnerSpotted knapweed in USDA Field Station in Missoula, USA (left) and a knapweed individual (right). Courtesy of Norman E. Rees & Ivan Bliek.

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Invasions by alien plants threaten the integrity of agricultural and natural systems, causing enormous economic and ecological cost. Throughout western North America, plant invasions have resulted in the replacement of vast areas of native perennial grasses with Eurasian and Mediterranean plants. Various factors have been shown to contribute to the negative impact of invasive alien plants, but their relative importance remains unclear. We assessed the relative effects of neighbouring plant community and soil biota in explaining the negative impact of spotted knapweed, Centaurea stoebe L., during the invasion of new sites in North America.

We conducted a greenhouse experiment with both European and North American spotted knapweed competing with/without European vs. North American neighbouring community and with the two neighbouring communities growing without knapweed. Plants were grown in sterilized commercial soil inoculated with soil originating either from the home or the introduced range, and half of which was sterilized to remove soil biota.

Our results suggest that during the colonization of new sites in North American grasslands, the impact of spotted knapweed is strongly driven by the lower competitive ability of new (North American) neighbours compared with old (European) neighbours, while altered biotic soil conditions in the introduced range are of less importance. Interestingly, this differential impact appears to be due to inherently different mechanisms, as biomass of knapweed explained a substantial amount of the variation in biomass of the coevolved European neighbours, but not of the new "naïve" North American neighbours. Thus, impact in the home range appears to be driven by simple competition for the same limiting resources, but by other factors in the introduced range, possibly by exploitation of resources that are not used by the new neighbours or by a direct chemical impact on those neighbours (e.g. allelopathy effects). These findings, if applicable to other species, have important implications for the management of alien invasive plants, in that ecosystem recovery is less likely after a simple removal of their biomass.

Image caption: Spotted knapweed in USDA Field Station in Missoula, USA (left) and a knapweed individual (right). Courtesy of Norman E. Rees & Ivan Bliek.
This paper can be found online in its As Accepted form (not typeset or proofed) here.


Site fidelity curbs sequential search and territory choice: A game theoretic approach.

Kenneth A. Schmidt Evolution of the acceptance threshold (μ) is influenced by ecological factors that directly or indirectly affect the intensity of competition for breeding sites. The factors examined include: adult survivorship (max ØA), site-fidelity (WSLS rule), predator danger, and density-dependence (β). The acceptance threshold, μ, has an eco-evolutionary feedback through the territory game (evolutionary dynamic).

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Choosing among options of different quality that are sampled one after another is a well-known phenomenon in ecology where it is fundamental to behaviours such as patch use and mate choice. It also occurs in human contexts where it is know as the ‘job-search problem’. In both cases an individual has to decide when to stop looking and choose from a set of available options. Territory choice in vertebrates likely includes sampling for prospective breeding sites combined with a decision rule for accepting a site. Repeated breeders can also use prior experience to determine whether to return to or abandon former territories. Here I consider a threshold rule: individuals choose the first option that equals or exceeds a preset level of quality. Because the benefit an individual derives from using a given threshold will depend on what the population does, I used a game-theoretical approach to examine the evolution of the threshold. I examined this with and without considering older individuals who simply returned to (or remained at) territories where they were successful, i.e., they are site-faithful.

Ecological factors that increase population size enhance competition for sites and this affects the acceptance threshold: individuals are less choosy with more competitors present. To understand why, consider that being choosier than the average individual requires more bouts of sampling, on average, to find a site that is acceptable. But this selectivity comes at a cost: with every unsuccessful sampling bout, the average quality of remaining sites you sample from in the next bout becomes progressively worse. This potentially favors a slightly less selective individual, especially at high population density, and the population evolves a lower selectivity. The impact of site-faithful individuals, when faithful only to previously successful sites, exacerbates this effect by preferentially pre-empting high quality sites. The effect of site-faithful behavior may lead to the evolution of a threshold rule that as a whole, may in fact be little better than choosing sites at random. However, site-faithfulness does provides a better safeguard against population extinction.

Image caption: Evolution of the acceptance threshold (μ) is influenced by ecological factors that directly or indirectly affect the intensity of competition for breeding sites. The factors examined include: adult survivorship (max ØA), site-fidelity (WSLS rule), predator danger, and density-dependence (β). The acceptance threshold, μ, has an eco-evolutionary feedback through the territory game (evolutionary dynamic).
This paper can be found online in its As Accepted form (not typeset or proofed) here.


A newly defined Leaf Relative Growth Rate predicts shade tolerance of trees in a cool–temperate forest.

Ayana Miyashita & Masaki TatenoA cool-temperate mixed forest of Abies firma and Fagus japonica.

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Some tree species have the ability to survive and grow in a low-light environment. Such “shade-tolerant” trees are considered to play an important role in forest dynamics as dominant species, but the plant traits responsible for shade-tolerance are still controversial.

An important feature of shade-tolerant trees is to keep a positive whole-plant carbon-balance (i.e., positive growth rate) in a shaded understorey. However, whole-plant carbon-balance does not always show a reasonable growth potential. To evaluate continuous growth potential, we should evaluate whether the leaf biomass of a plant increases with time. To do this, we have attempted to develop a new index focusing on “leaf carbon-balance” to evaluate growth potential in a shaded understorey. We named the new index “Leaf RGR”, expressed using important traits for plant growth: net assimilation rate (rate of dry matter production per unit of leaf area ), leaf life-span, leaf mass per area, and leaf partitioning rate (a measure of the extent of investment into leaves). A numerical value of Leaf RGR >0 shows a positive leaf carbon-balance leading to continuous growth. Leaf RGR allows a quantitative analysis of how traits affect leaf carbon balance.

We applied this new index to the cool–temperate forest trees Abies firma (an evergreen conifer) and Fagus crenata and F. japonica (both deciduous broad-leaf trees) to compare shade tolerance.

We planted seedlings of the species in different light environments (open, deciduous and evergreen canopy sites), and observed their traits. Overall Leaf RGR and whole-plant growth rates showed a good correlation, however whole-plant growth rate was positive even if Leaf RGR was negative (i.e., no potential for continuous growth). Negative values of Leaf RGR appeared to correspond to low survival rates.

We found that in the deciduous site A. firma showed higher Leaf RGR and survival rate than F. japonica and F. crenata. Analysis of Leaf RGR showed that A. firma’s relatively high net assimilation rate and long leaf life-span were important; especially in deep shade, long-lived leaves can be essential to keep leaf carbon-balance positive. These results suggest that in a cool–temperate forest, evergreen plants can be more shade tolerant compared with deciduous plants.

Image caption: A cool-temperate mixed forest of Abies firma and Fagus japonica.
This paper can be found online in its As Accepted form (not typeset or proofed) here.


The regulation of leaf water conductance across tree species: An entire spectrum revealed.

Tamir KleinMeasuring contrasting stomatal responses to leaf water status in the field: the author measures stomatal conductance and leaf water potential in co-occurring pines and oaks in a forest site in Israel. Photograph by Idan Springer.

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Water transport in plants is regulated by the degree of aperture of small stomatal pores. Plant stomata form a major gateway between the biosphere and the atmosphere and hence directly affect the global carbon and water cycles. Among tree species, large variability exists in how stomatal conductance responds to leaf water status. This variability has given rise to the recognition of two behavior types: isohydric, i.e. operating only close to leaf water saturation, and anisohydric, i.e. extending gas exchange to partial leaf dehydration. To assess this variability, curves of stomatal sensitivity to leaf water status were collected for 70 woody plant species. The dataset is comprised of flowering plants and conifers from all major forest biomes. The hypothesis that curves from different tree species diverge between isohydric and anisohydric behaviors was tested.

Here, species-specific curves formed a continuum of leaf responses, rather than a dichotomy between isohydric and anisohydric, as confirmed by distribution models. The water status at 50% of the maximum stomatal conductance (Ψgs50) was used for quantitative comparison between species. A major difference emerged among wood anatomy classes, whereby ring-porous species (e.g. almond, Prunus dulcis; and various species of oak, Quercus) had higher stomatal conductance at low leaf water status than diffuse-porous (e.g. various species of Eucalyptus, Ficus, and Populus ) and coniferous species. On average, trees from Mediterranean forests and semi-arid woodlands had significantly lower Ψgs50 than trees from tropical and temperate forests. The results indicate a bias in the distinction between isohydric and anisohydric species and suggest that stomatal sensitivity to leaf water status depends strongly on wood anatomy. The analysis improves our understanding of tree function under water limitation, with implications for forest vulnerability to drought at present and in future.

Image caption: Measuring contrasting stomatal responses to leaf water status in the field: the author measures stomatal conductance and leaf water potential in co-occurring pines and oaks in a forest site in Israel. Photograph by Idan Springer.
This paper can be found online in its As Accepted form (not typeset or proofed) here.


Non-random patterns of functional redundancy revealed in ground beetle communities facing an extreme flood event.

Michael Gerisch

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Why are there so many species? And why are some species more similar in what they do than others? These questions have fascinated ecologists for decades, because they might explain why some populations, communities, or ecosystems are resilient to disturbances – and some are less. Functional redundancy is an increasingly applied concept to understand such biodiversity-stability relationships. It predicts that certain species can get lost from ecosystems (e.g., through disturbances) without affecting its integrity, because the remaining species perform similar roles and in doing so, maintain ecological functioning. However, recent studies report that functional redundancy is often lower than expected, and its importance for ecosystem stability is still unclear. Here I ask whether functional redundancy exists in ground beetles experiencing different levels of flood disturbance, and how it connects to the resilience of communities after an extreme flood event.

Functional redundancy was measured as the proportion of species having neutral effects on functional diversity if they were removed from the community. I compared the functional redundancy between artificial and observed communities to estimate if the functional redundancy “in the field” is higher or lower than what can be expected from a random draw. In fact, it was random, or even lower than expected, in many cases. Only in habitats with high flood disturbance or low groundwater depth (e.g., the most dynamic habitats), was functional redundancy considerably higher than expected. I also found functional redundancy to be higher in spring than in autumn. Most likely, the regular flood disturbance in spring facilitates many species to be functionally redundant in order to insure ecological functioning despite environmental stochasticity. However, in the course of extreme flood events, this mechanism was not very effective. The study shows that the role of functional redundancy for ecosystem stability is not permanent, but changes with environmental conditions, time after disturbances, and species composition.

Image caption: Dike burst during the extreme summer flood in August 2002 at the Elbe River, Germany, near the city of Dessau. Photo by Andre Künzelmann, UFZ.
This paper can be found online here.


Seedling resistance, tolerance and escape from herbivores: insights from co-dominant canopy tree species in a resource-poor African rain forest.

Julian M. Norghauer, Gaёtan Glauser & David M. Newbery In the foreground is a large seedling of zebrawood (Microberlinia bisulcata) at Korup, Cameroon, with mature and new leaves that had been protected from insect herbivores. In the background is a typical mesh cage built to exclude these herbivores in the experiment. Photo by Julian Norghauer.

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Since plants are largely immobile a crucial function for them is to reduce the potential impacts of being found and especially their leaves being repeatedly eaten by herbivores. Plants can defend themselves in three principal ways. One, by having chemical and/or physical traits that make them resistant to being eaten, two by having growth traits that instead enable them to be tolerant, e.g. by rapidly replacing lost leaves; and three, by having seed dispersal traits that allow escape in space, so they can avoid being found. How these different traits trade off to form the various strategies among co-occurring species within tropical tree communities is of essential interest as they have important consequences for recruitment, replacement and forest dynamics.

Compared with other tropical regions, much less is known about the defense strategies of African tree species. This study attempts to redress the imbalance.

The primary rain forest at Korup in the Republic of Cameroon offers a unique site for studying tree seedling defenses. The three co-dominant canopy tree species, all of the family Caesalpiniaeae, are taxonomically very closely related and share the same ballistic mode of seed dispersal. The most abundant of them is Microberlinia bisulcata or zebrawood, which forms large groves at Korup. The 4-year field experiment was set up within a large permanent grove plot. Fine nylon mesh cages were placed over new seedlings to protect them from insect herbivores — mesh roofs only for unprotected seedlings — in many pairs of well-lighted forest gaps and contrastingly shaded understorey locations. Seedling growth rates were related to leaf chemistry to estimate resistance and tolerance traits. Using mapped tree locations around seedlings mechanisms of escape could be evaluated.

The three tree species have apparently evolved quite different defense strategies which result from a trade-off between fast growth in response to light (hence raised tolerance) and effective escape associated with low resistance, and slow (shade-tolerant) growth and less successful escape associated with high resistance. A small conceptual model encapsulates these ideas. By reducing direct competition between them in this way (creating niche separation), trait differences are thought to contribute importantly to the species’ co-existence at Korup.

Image caption: In the foreground is a large seedling of zebrawood (Microberlinia bisulcata) at Korup, Cameroon, with mature and new leaves that had been protected from insect herbivores. In the background is a typical mesh cage built to exclude these herbivores in the experiment. Photo by Julian Norghauer.
This paper can be found online here.


Within-species variability is the main driver of community-level responses of traits of epiphytes across a long term chronosequence.

Johan Asplund and David A. WardlePhoto by Johan Asplund..

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Ecosystem succession is characterized by an initial build-up phase where nutrient availability increases until a maximum biomass phase is reached. However, in the prolonged absence of major disturbances (often in the order of millennia) the ecosystem enters a phase of retrogression which is characterized by increasing limitation in the availability of soil nutrients, notably phosphorous but in several cases also nitrogen. Chronosequences, areas that vary in time since major disturbance but otherwise are similar, can be used as “natural experiments”. In this study we used such a chronosequence involving 30 lake islands in northern Sweden spanning 5000 years in time since latest fire. We used this system to study how changes in soil fertility during retrogression affect lichens which are organism-like associations between fungi and algae. We measured how secondary compounds (defensive compounds), nutrient concentrations and the ratio between biomass and area changed in lichens growing on birch trees across this gradient. We measured these responses at the individual species level to see if lichens of the same species change across the gradient. We further calculated the responses as community weighted means where the responses of more common species have more influence than less common species. As such, community weighted responses can be affected by changes in the relative species composition and / or the response of individual species. We found older, less fertile islands had lichens with much higher nutrient concentration and higher biomass per unit area. At the community-level this was explained by higher values in individual species rather than a switch to species with higher values.

Image caption: Photo by Johan Asplund.
This paper can be found online here.


Outcrossing in sessile organisms: a feat perfected in Darwin’s primroses.

Barbara Keller, James D. Thomson and Elena ContiA flower of the distylous Primula elatior probed by a hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes). Photograph credit: Barbara Keller..

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Plants are sessile organisms, thus vectors (e.g., insects) are needed to transfer male reproductive cells between individuals, effecting sexual reproduction and increasing genetic variation. Most flowering plants have male (anthers) and female (stigmas) sexual organs within the same flower, a condition that enables pollen produced by one flower to fertilize ovules of the same flower (selfing). Selfing, however, is often associated with inbreeding depression, which tends to lower offspring fitness. Various strategies aimed at reducing selfing have evolved in flowering plants, including spatial separation of sexual organs within a flower (herkogamy). However, there is often a tradeoff between avoidance of selfing and promotion of cross-pollination (outcrossing). For instance, herkogamy, which decreases self-pollination, might hamper cross-pollination via the spatial mismatch between anthers of pollen-donor and stigmas of pollen-recipient flowers. The dilemma is thought to be largely resolved in distylous species by producing two types of plants (morphs) with male and female sexual organs placed reciprocally in their flowers. The reciprocal placement facilitates cross-pollination, while the separation between anthers and stigmas within flowers limits self-pollination. Furthermore, a pollen-incompatibility system prevents seed set after self- and intra-morph pollination. The combination of the peculiar sexual-organ arrangement and incompatibility system is expected to maximize outcrossing by favoring inter-morph over intra-morph pollen transfer, while restricting intra-floral and intra-morph pollination. But does distyly really work as expected?

Despite the long-standing interest in distyly, dating back to Darwin’s studies on primroses, the specific predictions of its functional roles have never been tested in the same system. Here we perform controlled pollination experiments in the primrose and the oxlip - popular and commercially important spring-flowering ornamentals - using hairy-footed flower bees as pollen vectors. Consistent with our expectations, we find that more pollen is transferred between than within morphs, herkogamy lowers self- and intra-morph pollination, self-pollen does not set seed, and the presence of incompatible pollen on a stigma does not significantly diminish seed set by inter-morph pollen. Our study provides experimental validation for the predictions that distyly promotes cross-pollination and restricts gamete wastage to self-fertilization, thus optimizing outcrossing in sessile organisms.

Image caption: A flower of the distylous Primula elatior probed by a hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) . Photograph credit: Barbara Keller.
This paper can be found online here.


Asymmetry of plant-mediated interactions between specialist aphids and caterpillars on two milkweeds.

Jared G. Ali and Anurag A. AgrawalCaterpillar. Photograph by Ellen Woods.

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In the past two decades it has been well established that distinct herbivore species can indirectly interact through a shared host plant. An asymmetric interaction has been hypothesized for insects in different feeding guilds, such as aphids (‘suckers’) and caterpillars (‘chewers’). The general pattern observed is that by inducing the plant hormone salicylic acid, aphids enhance performance of caterpillars by reducing the induction of production of jasmonic acid, a hormone involved in plant defense. Although most of this work has been done using model plant species or crops, we present one of the few studies that have tested the assumptions of aphid-caterpillar interactions in wild plants, with herbivore species that naturally co-occur. This study confirms that aphids enhance performance of caterpillars (of the specialist monarch butterfly) and yet caterpillars reduce aphid performance on Common Milkweed. But on a closely related plant, Butterfly Milkweed, there were different induced responses after herbivory: aphids did not promote caterpillar performance, and caterpillars did not reduce aphid performance. That closely related wild species differ in their responses to aphids and caterpillars suggests that during their evolution they have diverged in their responses to these insects.

Image caption: Caterpillar. Photograph by Ellen Woods.
This paper can be found online here.


Community assembly effects shape the biodiversity-ecosystem functioning relationships.

Benoît Jaillard, Alain Rapaport, Jérôme Harmand, Alain Brauman, & Naoise NunanInteracting classes of species in a community .

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It is important to understand correctly how diversity influences the functioning of ecosystems, given the current loss of biodiversity and its likely effects on ecosystems. Many studies have tried to explain this relation in different environments such as plant, aquatic or microbial ecology. Usually scientists choose species at random from a given fixed species pool and test experimentally how assembling their behaviour influences the overall function of the ecosystem. They most often find that productivity increases with increasing biodiversity. Conversely, some people consider that ecosystems are dominated by a small number of species. With this idea, we decided to build a theoretical model based on the probability of interaction between species. We arbitrarily assigned species to one of three classes, subordinate, dominant and super-dominant species, ordered in a simple dominance hierarchy. Community functioning is determined by prevalent dominance rules. We tested two rules. One was the simple presence of a species determined if it dominated the ecosystem. The other was that the dominant species had to be present as a majority of species in order to achieve their dominant position. To our surprise we found that the system became rapidly very complex, even when only three species classes were present. We were also surprised to discover that all species, even the subordinate species, played a role in the functioning of the ecosystem. The model fitted experimental observations well. This parsimonious model provides a new framework for studying ecosystems, whatever their environment.

Image caption: Interacting classes of species in a community .
The article is available here.


Changing drivers of species dominance during tropical forest succession.

Madelon Lohbeck, Lourens Poorter, Miguel Martínez-Ramos, Jorge Rodriguez-Velázquez, Michiel van Breugel & Frans BongersThe study area in Chiapas, Mexico, where the landscape consists of a mosaic of agricultural fields, young secondary forest and old secondary forest.

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Tropical forests are celebrated for their high aboveground biomass and high tree diversity. Here we study secondary succession: the process of forest recovery after complete clearance of the vegetation for agriculture. This represents a natural gradient of biomass and diversity build-up. As the forest grows back over time, some of the species that are present in the forest manage to attain high biomass and become dominant, whereas other tree species remain rare. We ask whether such dominance is related to the characteristics of the species (functional traits) and what mechanisms drive species dominance. Is it environmental filtering, i.e. does the environment select for specific types of trees? Or is it limiting similarity, i.e. successful species tend to be specialists that differ from other dominants?. We answer these questions by studying tropical secondary forest in Chiapas, Mexico.

We found that in young forests with low overall biomass the trees that are dominant, even if they are from different species, all have similar light capture strategies. Thus at this stage the main mechanism explaining dominance is environmental filtering: only species with a specific strategy are best adapted to the prevailing (high light) conditions and will dominate the young forest. As the forest gets older, biomass increases and a dense canopy prevents sunlight from entering the understory. The fierce competition for light means that trees need to specialize to make optimal use of different light-niches to be able to thrive here. Now dominant species need to be different from each other in terms of their light-capture traits, a mechanism known as competitively-driven limiting similarity. By exhibiting different strategies many species are able to co-exist in an environment that is increasingly packed by trees and limited in resources such as light.

During the first 25 years after agricultural abandonment the importance of environmental filtering as a driving force fades away rapidly and the importance of light gradient partitioning for species dominance starts to emerge. Understanding what factors shape species dominance is relevant as mainly the large dominating trees in an ecosystem determine how the forest functions.

Image caption: c
The article is available here.



Experimental evidence that maternal corticosterone controls adaptive offspring sex ratios.

Sarah R. Pryke, Lee A. Rollins, Simon C. Griffith & William A. ButtemerGouldian finches. Photo provided by authors.

Recent studies have shown that female birds can have a remarkable degree of control over whether they produce sons or daughters. However, it is unknown how females are able to control the sex of their offspring. One idea is that differences in levels of hormones circulating in the female during egg production may influence this process. Here we experimentally altered levels of the stress hormone, corticosterone, in egg laying Gouldian finches. Individual females received both corticosterone (which elevates stress levels, although corticosterone levels remained within the natural range for these birds) and metrypone implants (which reduces stress levels) in random order (i.e. such that each female bred under both treatments).

Females with corticosterone implants had highly elevated levels of circulating (plasma) corticosterone and overproduced sons, whereas when the same females were treated with metrypone they exhibited very low stress levels and overproduced daughters. In this species, females naturally show large variations in both corticosterone levels and offspring sex ratio adjustment in response to quality of their partners (male quality is signalled through genetically-determined head colouration - red or black). Previous studies have shown that females breeding with genetically incompatible males (of the opposite head colour) have very high daughter mortality (>80%), and when females are constrained to breeding with incompatible males they exhibit highly elevated stress responses and also adaptively overproduce sons. Therefore, the current study suggests that female hormonal state, and particularly elevated stress levels, may provide the mechanism for female birds to adjust the sex of their offspring.

Image caption: Simochromis pleurospilus with young. Photograph by Christoph Grüter.
This paper can be found online here.


Transgenerational plasticity in marine sticklebacks: maternal effects mediate impacts of a warming ocean.

Lisa N.S. Shama, Anneli Strobel, Felix C. Mark and K. Mathias WegnerSize differences in offspring of mothers acclimated to different temperatures.

Our climate is changing at an alarming rate, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the world´s oceans. The key question now being asked is whether marine species will be able to adapt fast enough to keep pace with changing environments. Evidence is accumulating that marine species might be able to adapt to rapid environmental change if they have sufficient genetic variation (the raw material for evolutionary change) and/or plasticity to mount fast responses. In the case of plasticity, organisms adjust to the changed conditions by a change in morphology or behaviour without altering their genetic composition. Plasticity can work very fast. For example, if the environment becomes warmer, any trait that is plastic with respect to temperature can shift. Moreover, plasticity can occur both within a generation (individual responds to environment) and across generations (transgenerational e.g. maternal and paternal effects), making it a highly effective mechanism. The evolutionary potential of populations can thus be influenced by both genetic adaptation and non-genetic inheritance mechanisms such transgenerational plasticity.

Our study shows that transgenerational effects, in particular maternal effects, will play an important role in populations’ adaptive responses to climate change. We acclimated marine stickleback parents to either ambient or elevated sea water temperatures, produced offspring in all possible parental temperature combinations, and then reared offspring at both temperatures. Our results suggest that stickleback mothers are programming offspring growth via adjustments to offspring metabolism to grow better in the predicted future environment (her acclimation temperature), and this programming is particularly strong at elevated temperature, suggesting that maternal effects will be highly relevant for climate change scenarios in this system. Genetic variation was lower at elevated temperature, and the interaction of genotype and environment (within generation plasticity) also played an important role in shaping offspring growth trajectories at different temperatures.

Taken together, our data suggest that elevated temperature may be a particular problem for these fish, but stronger maternal programming under stressful conditions may help to alleviate some of the negative effects. Hence, both non-genetic and genetic inheritance will influence the adaptive potential of marine stickleback populations in the face of a rapidly changing ocean climate. Transgenerational plasticity can buffer short-term detrimental effects of climate warming and may buy time for genetic adaptation to catch up, therefore markedly contributing to the persistence of populations under climate change.

Image caption: Size differences in offspring of mothers acclimated to different temperatures.
This paper can be found online here.

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