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Concept: Great American Interchange


Functional redundancy has been debated largely in ecology and conservation, yet we lack detailed empirical studies on the roles of functionally similar species in ecosystem function. Large bodied frugivores may disperse similar plant species and have strong impact on plant recruitment in tropical forests. The two largest frugivores in the neotropics, tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) and muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides) are potential candidates for functional redundancy on seed dispersal effectiveness. Here we provide a comparison of the quantitative, qualitative and spatial effects on seed dispersal by these megafrugivores in a continuous Brazilian Atlantic forest.

Concepts: Scientific method, Biodiversity, Ecology, Ecosystem, Forest, Biogeography, Great American Interchange, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


Facial vibrissae, or whiskers, are found in nearly all extant mammal species and are likely to have been present in early mammalian ancestors. A sub-set of modern mammals, including many rodents, move their vibrissae back-and-forth at high speed whilst exploring in a behaviour known as “whisking”. It is not known whether the vibrissae of early mammals moved in this way. The gray short-tailed opossum, Monodelphis domestica, is considered a useful species from the perspective of tracing the evolution of modern mammals. Interestingly, these marsupials engage in whisking bouts similar to those seen in rodents. To better assess the likelihood that active vibrissal sensing was present in ancestral mammals we examined the vibrissal musculature of the opossum using digital miscroscopy to see if this resembles that of rodents.Although opossums have fewer whiskers than rats, our investigation found that the vibrissal musculature is similar in both species. In particular, in both rats and opossums, the musculature includes both intrinsic and extrinsic muscles with the intrinsic muscles positioned as slings linking pairs of large vibrissae within rows. We identified some differences in the extrinsic musculature which, interestingly, matched with behavioural data obtained through high-speed video recording, and indicated additional degrees of freedom for positioning the vibrissae in rats. These data show that the whisker movements of opossum and rat exploit similar underlying mechanisms. Paired with earlier results suggesting similar patterns of vibrissal movement, this strongly implies that early therian (marsupial and placental) mammals were whisking animals that actively controlled their vibrissae.

Concepts: Mammal, Rodent, Marsupial, Eutheria, Metatheria, Theria, Opossum, Great American Interchange


Cougars (Puma concolor) are one of only two large cats in North America to have survived the Late Pleistocene extinction (LPE), yet the specific key(s) to their relative success remains unknown. Here, we compare the dental microwear textures of Pleistocene cougars with sympatric felids from the La Brea Tar Pits in southern California that went extinct at the LPE (Panthera atrox and Smilodon fatalis), to clarify potential dietary factors that led to the cougar’s persistence through the LPE. We further assess whether the physical properties of food consumed have changed over time when compared with modern cougars in southern California. Using dental microwear texture analysis (DMTA), which quantifies surface features in three dimensions, we find that modern and Pleistocene cougars are not significantly different from modern African lions in any DMTA attributes, suggesting moderate durophagy (i.e. bone processing). Pleistocene cougars from La Brea have significantly greater complexity and textural fill volume than Panthera atrox (inferred to have primarily consumed flesh from fresh kills) and significantly greater variance in complexity values than S. fatalis. Ultimately, these results suggest that cougars already used or adopted a more generalized dietary strategy during the Pleistocene that may have been key to their subsequent success.

Concepts: Lion, Felidae, Cougar, Leopard, Jaguar, Big cat, Great American Interchange, La Brea Tar Pits


Late Pleistocene groundwater discharge deposits (paleowetlands) in the upper Las Vegas Wash north of Las Vegas, Nevada, have yielded an abundant and diverse vertebrate fossil assemblage, the Tule Springs local fauna (TSLF). The TSLF is the largest open-site vertebrate fossil assemblage dating to the Rancholabrean North American Land Mammal Age in the southern Great Basin and Mojave Desert. Over 600 discrete body fossil localities have been recorded from the wash, including an area that now encompasses Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (TUSK). Paleowetland sediments exposed in TUSK named the Las Vegas Formation span the last 250 ka, with fossiliferous sediments spanning ∼100-13 ka. The recovered fauna is dominated by remains of Camelopsand Mammuthus, and also includes relatively common remains of extinct Equusand Bisonas well as abundant vertebrate microfaunal fossils. Large carnivorans are rare, with only Puma concolor and Panthera atrox documented previously. Postcranial remains assigned to the species Canis dirus (dire wolf) and Smilodon fatalis (sabre-toothed cat) represent the first confirmed records of these species from the TSLF, as well as the first documentation of Canis dirus in Nevada and the only known occurrence of Smilodonin southern Nevada. The size of the recovered canid fossil precludes assignment to other Pleistocene species of Canis. The morphology of the felid elements differentiates them from other large predators such as Panthera, Homotherium, and Xenosmilus, and the size of the fossils prevents assignment to other species of Smilodon. The confirmed presence of S. fatalis in the TSLF is of particular interest, indicating that this species inhabited open habitats. In turn, this suggests that the presumed preference of S. fatalis for closed-habitat environments hunting requires further elucidation.

Concepts: Felidae, Fossil, Gray Wolf, Dinosaur, Great American Interchange, La Brea Tar Pits, Machairodontinae, Smilodon


Phenotypic variation along environmental gradients can provide evidence suggesting local adaptation has shaped observed morphological disparities. These differences, in traits such as body and extremity size, as well as skin and coat pigmentation, may affect the overall fitness of individuals in their environments. The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is a marsupial that shows phenotypic variation across its range, one that has recently expanded into temperate environments. It is unknown, however, whether the variation observed in the species fits adaptive ecogeographic patterns, or if phenotypic change is associated with any environmental factors. Using phenotypic measurements of over 300 museum specimens of Virginia opossum, collected throughout its distribution range, we applied regression analysis to determine if phenotypes change along a latitudinal gradient. Then, using predictors from remote-sensing databases and a random forest algorithm, we tested environmental models to find the most important variables driving the phenotypic variation. We found that despite the recent expansion into temperate environments, the phenotypic variation in the Virginia opossum follows a latitudinal gradient fitting three adaptive ecogeographic patterns codified under Bergmann’s, Allen’s and Gloger’s rules. Temperature seasonality was an important predictor of body size variation, with larger opossums occurring at high latitudes with more seasonal environments. Annual mean temperature predicted important variation in extremity size, with smaller extremities found in northern populations. Finally, we found that precipitation and temperature seasonality as well as low temperatures were strong environmental predictors of skin and coat pigmentation variation; darker opossums are distributed at low latitudes in warmer environments with higher precipitation seasonality. These results indicate that the adaptive mechanisms underlying the variation in body size, extremity size and pigmentation are related to the resource seasonality, heat conservation, and pathogen-resistance hypotheses, respectively. Our findings suggest that marsupials may be highly susceptible to environmental changes, and in the case of the Virginia opossum, the drastic phenotypic evolution in northern populations may have arisen rapidly, facilitating the colonization of seasonal and colder habitats of temperate North America.

Concepts: Regression analysis, Natural selection, Marsupial, Opossum, Virginia Opossum, Didelphis, Great American Interchange, Opossums


The evolution of sociality is related to many ecological factors that act on animals as selective forces, thus driving the formation of groups. Group size will depend on the payoffs of group living. The Social Complexity Hypothesis for Communication (SCHC) predicts that increases in group size will be related to increases in the complexity of the communication among individuals. This hypothesis, which was confirmed in some mammal societies, may be useful to trace sociality in the spotted paca (Cuniculus paca), a Neotropical caviomorph rodent reported as solitary. There are, however, sightings of groups in the wild, and farmers easily form groups of spotted paca in captivity. Thus, we aimed to describe the acoustic repertoire of captive spotted paca to test the SCHC and to obtain insights about the sociability of this species. Moreover, we aimed to verify the relationship between group size and acoustic repertoire size of caviomorph rodents, to better understand the evolution of sociality in this taxon. We predicted that spotted paca should display a complex acoustic repertoire, given their social behavior in captivity and group sightings in the wild. We also predicted that in caviomorph species the group size would increase with acoustic repertoire, supporting the SCHC. We performed a Linear Discriminant Analysis (LDA) based on acoustic parameters of the vocalizations recorded. In addition, we applied an independent contrasts approach to investigate sociality in spotted paca following the social complexity hypothesis, independent of phylogeny. Our analysis showed that the spotted paca’s acoustic repertoire contains seven vocal types and one mechanical signal. The broad acoustic repertoire of the spotted paca might have evolved given the species' ability to live in groups. The relationship between group size and the size of the acoustic repertoires of caviomorph species was confirmed, providing additional support for the SCHC in yet another group of diverse mammals-caviomorph rodents.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Evolution, Biology, Sociology, Mammal, Rodent, Caviomorpha, Great American Interchange


The contribution of small mammal ecology to the understanding of macroecological patterns of biodiversity, population dynamics and community assembly has been hindered by the absence of large datasets of small mammal communities from tropical regions. Here we compile the largest dataset of inventories of small mammal communities for the Neotropical region. The dataset reviews small mammal communities from the Atlantic forest of South America, one of the regions with the highest diversity of small mammals and a global biodiversity hotspot, though currently covering less than 12% of its original area due to anthropogenic pressures. The dataset comprises 136 references from 300 locations covering seven vegetation types of tropical and subtropical Atlantic forests of South America, and presents data on species composition, richness, and relative abundance (captures/trap-nights). One paper was published more that 70 years ago but 80% of them were published after 2000. The dataset comprises 53,518 individuals of 124 species of small mammals, including 30 species of marsupials and 94 species of rodents. Species richness averaged 8.2 species (1 - 21) per site. Only two species occurred in more than 50% of the sites (the common opossum, Didelphis aurita and black-footed pigmy rice rat Oligoryzomys nigripes). Mean species abundance varied 430-fold, from 4.3 to 0.01 individuals/trap-night. The dataset also revealed a hyper-dominance of 22 species that comprised 78.29% of all individuals captured, with only seven species representing 44% of all captures. The information contained on this dataset can be applied in the study of macroecological patterns of biodiversity, communities and populations, but also to evaluate the ecological consequences of fragmentation and defaunation, and predict disease outbreaks, trophic interactions and community dynamics in this biodiversity hotspot. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Tropics, Mammal, Brazil, South America, Great American Interchange, Neotropic


A new genus and species of nematode, Tziminema unachi n. gen., n. sp. is described from the caecum and colon of Baird’s tapir Tapirus bairdii (Gill, 1865), found dead in the Reserva de la Biósfera El Triunfo, Chiapas State, in the Neotropical realm of Mexico. Tziminema n. gen. differs from the other nine genera included in the Strongylinae by two main characteristics: having 7-9 posteriorly directed tooth-like structures at the anterior end of the buccal capsule, and the external surface of the buccal capsule being heavily striated. Phylogenetic analyses of the DNA sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase and nuclear DNA, including a partial sequence of the internal transcribed spacer 1, 5.8S and a partial sequence of the internal transcribed spacer 2 of the new taxon, confirmed its inclusion in Strongylinae and its rank as a new genus.

Concepts: DNA, Mitochondrion, Species, Cytochrome c, Great American Interchange, Tapirs, Baird's Tapir, Tapir


Species co-existence depends on how organisms utilize their environment and resources. When two sympatric species are similar in some ecological requirements, their coexistence may arise from differences in resource use over time and/or space. Interactions among coexisting marsupials remain poorly understood, especially in the Neotropics. Here we combine spatial niche measurements, individual-resource networks, and isotopic niche approaches, to investigate the ecological strategies used by the Neotropical marsupials Didelphis aurita and Metachirus nudicaudatus to co-occur in an area of Serra do Mar State Park (southeast of Brazil). Both individual-resource networks and isotopic niche approaches indicate similar patterns of omnivory for both species. Isotopic analysis showed the species' trophic niche to be similar, with 52% of overlap, and no differences between proportional contributions of each resource to their diets. Moreover, individual-resource network analysis found no evidence of diet nestedness or segregation. The trophic niche overlap observed was associated with spatial segregation between species. Despite using the same area over the year, D. aurita and M. nudicaudatus exhibited spatial segregation among seasons. These results illustrate that the detection of spatial segregation is scale-dependent and must be carefully considered. In conclusion, our findings provide a new perspective on the ecology of these two Neotropical marsupials by illustrating how the association of distinct but complementary methods can be applied to reach a more complete understanding of resource partitioning and species coexistence.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Biology, Ecology, Knowledge, Brazil, Biogeography, Opossum, Great American Interchange


The distal forelimb (autopodium) of quadrupedal mammals is a key morphological unit involved in locomotion, body support, and interaction with the substrate. The manus of the tapir (Perissodactyla: Tapirus) is unique within modern perissodactyls, as it retains the plesiomorphic tetradactyl (four-toed) condition also exhibited by basal equids and rhinoceroses. Tapirs are known to exhibit anatomical mesaxonic symmetry in the manus, although interspecific differences and biomechanical mesaxony have yet to be rigorously tested. Here, we investigate variation in the manus morphology of four modern tapir species (Tapirus indicus, Tapirus bairdii, Tapirus pinchaque, and Tapirus terrestris) using a geometric morphometric approach. Autopodial bones were laser scanned to capture surface shape and morphology was quantified using 3D-landmark analysis. Landmarks were aligned using Generalised Procrustes Analysis, with discriminant function and partial least square analyses performed on aligned coordinate data to identify features that significantly separate tapir species. Overall, our results support the previously held hypothesis that T. indicus is morphologically separate from neotropical tapirs; however, previous conclusions regarding function from morphological differences are shown to require reassessment. We find evidence indicating that T. bairdii exhibits reduced reliance on the lateral fifth digit compared to other tapirs. Morphometric assessment of the metacarpophalangeal joint and the morphology of the distal facets of the lunate lend evidence toward high loading on the lateral digits of both the large T. indicus (large body mass) and the small, long limbed T. pinchaque (ground impact). Our results support other recent studies on T. pinchaque, suggesting subtle but important adaptations to a compliant but inclined habitat. In conclusion, we demonstrate further evidence that the modern tapir forelimb is a variable locomotor unit with a range of interspecific features tailored to habitual and biomechanical needs of each species.

Concepts: Mammal, Horse, Rhinoceros, Odd-toed ungulate, Great American Interchange, Tapirs, Baird's Tapir, Tapir