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Journal: BMC ecology


BACKGROUND: Both competitive and facilitative interactions between species play a fundamental role in shaping natural communities. A recent study showed that competitive interactions between plants can be mediated by some alternative signalling channel, extending beyond those channels studied so far (i.e. chemicals, contact and light). Here, we tested whether such alternative pathway also enables facilitative interactions between neighbouring plant species. Specifically, we examined whether the presence of a ‘good’ neighbouring plant like basil positively influenced the germination of chilli seeds when all known signals were blocked. For this purpose, we used a custom-designed experimental set-up that prevented above- and below-ground contact and blocked chemical and light-mediated signals normally exchange by plants. RESULTS: We found that seed germination was positively enhanced by the presence of a ‘good’ neighbour, even when the known signalling modalities were blocked, indicating that light, touch or chemical signals may not be indispensible for different plant species to sense each other’s presence. CONCLUSIONS: We propose that this alternative signalling modality operates as a general indicator of the presence of heterospecifics, enabling seeds to detect and identify a neighbour prior to engaging in a more finely-tuned, but potentially more costly, response.

Concepts: Embryo, Plant, Fruit, Seed, Plant morphology, Germination, Seedling, Love Thy Neighbour


BACKGROUND: Biodiversity loss and species invasions are among the most important human-induced global changes. Moreover, these two processes are interlinked as ecosystem invasibility is considered to increase with decreasing biodiversity. In temperate grasslands, earthworms serve as important ecosystem engineers making up the majority of soil faunal biomass. Herbivore behaviour has been shown to be affected by earthworms, however it is unclear whether these effects differ with the composition of plant communities. To test this we conducted a mesocosm experiment where we added earthworms (Annelida: Lumbricidae) to planted grassland communities with different plant species composition (3 vs. 12 plant spp.). Plant communities had equal plant densities and ratios of the functional groups grasses, non-leguminous forbs and legumes. Later, Arion vulgaris slugs (formerly known as A. lusitanicus; Gastropoda: Arionidae) were added and allowed to freely choose among the available plant species. This slug species is listed among the 100 worst alien species in Europe. We hypothesized that (i) the food choice of slugs would be altered by earthworms' specific effects on the growth and nutrient content of plant species, (ii) slug herbivory will be less affected by earthworms in plant communities containing more plant species than in those with fewer plant species because of a more readily utilization of plant resources making the impacts of earthworms less pronounced. RESULTS: Slug herbivory was significantly affected by both earthworms and plant species composition. Slugs damaged 60% less leaves when earthworms were present, regardless of the species composition of the plant communities. Percent leaf area consumed by slugs was 40% lower in communities containing 12 plant species; in communities containing only three species earthworms increased slug leaf area consumption. Grasses were generally avoided by slugs. Leaf length and number of tillers was increased in mesocosms containing more plant species but little influenced by earthworms. Overall shoot biomass was decreased, root biomass increased in plant communities with more plant species. Earthworms decreased total shoot biomass in mesocosms with more plant species but did not affect biomass production of individual functional groups. Plant nitrogen concentrations across three focus species were 18% higher when earthworms were present; composition of plant communities did not affect plant quality. CONCLUSIONS: Given the important role that both herbivores and earthworms play in structuring plant communities the implications of belowground-aboveground linkages should more broadly be considered when investigating global change effects on ecosystems.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Plant, Animal, Affect, Grassland, Herbivore, Earthworm, Invasive species


BACKGROUND: Kin selection is a driving force in the evolution of mammalian social complexity. Recognition of paternal kin using vocalizations occurs in taxa with cohesive, complex social groups. This is the first investigation of paternal kin recognition via vocalizations in a small-brained, solitary foraging mammal, the grey mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus), a frequent model for ancestral primates. We analyzed the high frequency/ultrasonic male advertisement (courtship) call and alarm call. RESULTS: Multi-parametric analyses of the calls' acoustic parameters and discriminant function analyses showed that advertisement calls, but not alarm calls, contain patrilineal signatures. Playback experiments controlling for familiarity showed that females paid more attention to advertisement calls from unrelated males than from their fathers. Reactions to alarm calls from unrelated males and fathers did not differ. CONCLUSIONS: 1) Findings provide the first evidence of paternal kin recognition via vocalizations in a small-brained, solitarily foraging mammal. 2) High predation, small body size, and dispersed social systems may select for acoustic paternal kin recognition in the high frequency/ultrasonic ranges, thus limiting risks of inbreeding and eavesdropping by predators or conspecific competitors. 3) Paternal kin recognition via vocalizations in mammals is not dependent upon a large brain and high social complexity, but may already have been an integral part of the dispersed social networks from which more complex, kin-based sociality emerged.

Concepts: Human, Mammal, Primate, Selection, Mouse lemur, Gray Mouse Lemur


Exclusion from a social group is an effective way to avoid parasite transmission. This type of social removal has also been proposed as a form of collective defense, or social immunity, in eusocial insect groups. If parasitic modification of host behavior is widespread in social insects, the underlying physiological and neuronal mechanisms remain to be investigated. We studied this phenomenon in honey bees parasitized by the mite Varroa destructor or microsporidia Nosema ceranae, which make bees leave the hive precociously. We characterized the chemical, behavioral and neurogenomic changes in parasitized bees, and compared the effects of both parasites.

Concepts: Insect, Honey bee, Beekeeping, Bee, Bumblebee, Ant, Apidae, Hymenoptera


EDITORIAL: David Pimentel is a professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-0901. His Ph.D. is from Cornell University and had postdoctoral research at the University of Chicago, MIT, and fellowship at Oxford University (England). He was awarded a distinguished honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts. His research spans the fields of energy, population ecology, biological pest control, pesticides, sustainable agriculture, land and water conservation, livestock, and environmental policy. Pimentel has published more than 700 scientific papers and 37 books and has served on many national and government committees including the National Academy of Sciences; President’s Science Advisory Council; U.S Department of Agriculture; U.S. Department of Energy; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare; Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress; and the U.S. State Department. He is currently Editorial Advisor for BMC Ecology. In this article, he reflects on 50 years since the publication of Rachel Carson’s influential book, Silent Spring.

Concepts: Conservation biology, Agriculture, Science, Research, President of the United States, Federal government of the United States, Academic degree, Cornell University


BACKGROUND: The algal endosymbionts (genus Symbiodinium) associated with scleractinian corals (and other reef invertebrates) have received a lot of research attention in the past decade, particularly as certain host-symbiont associations appear more affected by increasing seawater temperatures than others. With the rapid accumulation of information on the diversity of Symbiodinium, it is becoming increasingly difficult to compare newly acquired Symbiodinium data with existing data to detect patterns of host-symbiont specificity on broader spatial scales. The lack of a general consensus on the classification of Symbiodinium species coupled with the variety of different markers used to identify the genus Symbiodinium (ITS1, ITS2, LSU D1/D2, chloroplast 23S rDNA and psbA minicircle) further complicate direct comparison.Description: The SymbioGBR database compiles all currently available Symbiodinium sequences and associated host information of data collected from the Great Barrier Reef into a single relational database that is accessible via a user-friendly, searchable web-based application ( SymbioGBR allows users to query Symbiodinium types or sequences sourced from various genetic markers (e.g. ITS1, ITS2, LSU D1/D2 and chloroplast 23S) and invertebrate host species to explore their reported associations. In addition, as the database includes sequence information of multiple genetic markers, it allows cross-referencing between conventional (e.g. ITS2 region) and novel markers that exhibit low intragenomic variability (e.g. psbA region). Finally, the database is based on the collection details of individual specimens. Such host-symbiont associations can be assessed quantitatively and viewed in relation to their environmental and geographic context. CONCLUSIONS: The SymbioGBR database provides a comprehensive overview of Symbiodinium diversity and host-associations on the Great Barrier Reef. It provides a quick, user-friendly means to compare newly acquired data on Symbiodinium (e.g. raw sequences or characterized Symbiodinium types) with previous data on the diversity of invertebrate host-symbiont associations on the GBR. The inclusion of psbAncr sequence information allows for validation of widely used ITS1/ITS2 markers and their ability to accurately identify relevant sequences. Most importantly, centralization of sequence information from multiple genetic markers will aid the classification of Symbiodinium species diversity and allow researchers to easily compare patterns of host-Symbiodinium associations.

Concepts: Species, Coral, Coral bleaching, Anthozoa, Great Barrier Reef, Relational algebra, Relational model, Relation


BACKGROUND: A multi-faceted approach was used to investigate the wintertime ecophysiology and behavioral patterns of the raccoon dog, Nyctereutes procyonoides, a suitable model for winter sleep studies. By utilizing GPS tracking, activity sensors, body temperature (Tb) recordings, change-point analysis (CPA), home range, habitat and dietary analyses, as well as fatty acid signatures (FAS), the impact of the species on wintertime food webs was assessed. The timing of passive bouts was determined with multiple methods and compared to Tb data analyzed by CPA. RESULTS: Raccoon dogs displayed wintertime mobility, and the home range sizes determined by GPS were similar or larger than previous estimates by radio tracking. The preferred habitats were gardens, shores, deciduous forests, and sparsely forested areas. Fields had close to neutral preference; roads and railroads were utilized as travel routes. Raccoon dogs participated actively in the food web and gained benefit from human activity. Mammals, plants, birds, and discarded fish comprised the most important dietary classes, and the consumption of fish could be detected in FAS. Ambient temperature was an important external factor influencing Tb and activity. The timing of passive periods approximated by behavioral data and by CPA shared 91% similarity. CONCLUSIONS: Passive periods can be determined with CPA from Tb recordings without the previously used time-consuming and expensive methods. It would be possible to recruit more animals by using the simple methods of data loggers and ear tags. Hunting could be used as a tool to return the ear-tagged individuals allowing the economical extension of follow-up studies. The Tb and CPA methods could be applied to other northern carnivores.

Concepts: Sleep, Canidae, Procyon, Nyctereutes, Raccoon Dog, Japanese Raccoon Dog, Sean John, Canines


BACKGROUND: Information on the age structure within populations of an endangered species can facilitate effective management. The Blue Mountains Water Skink (Eulamprus leuraensis) is a viviparous scincid lizard that is restricted to < 40 isolated montane swamps in south-eastern Australia. We used skeletochronology of phalanges (corroborated by mark-recapture data) to estimate ages of 222 individuals from 13 populations. RESULTS: These lizards grow rapidly, from neonatal size (30 mm snout-vent length) to adult size (about 70 mm SVL) within two to three years. Fecundity is low (mean 2.9 offspring per litter) and is affected by maternal body length and age. Offspring quality may decline with maternal age, based upon captive-born neonates (older females gave birth to slower offspring). In contrast to its broadly sympatric (and abundant) congener E. tympanum, E. leuraensis is short-lived (maximum 6 years, vs 15 years for E. tympanum). Litter size and offspring size are similar in the two species, but female E. leuraensis reproduce annually whereas many E. tympanum produce litters biennially. Thus, a low survival rate (rather than delayed maturation or low annual fecundity) is the key reason why E. leuraensis is endangered. Our 13 populations exhibited similar growth rates and population age structures despite substantial variation in elevation, geographic location and swamp size. However, larger populations (based on a genetic estimate of effective population size) contained older lizards, and thus a wider variance in ages. CONCLUSION: Our study suggests that low adult survival rates, as well as specialisation on a rare and fragmented habitat type (montane swamps) contribute to the endangered status of the Blue Mountains Water Skink.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Lizard, Skink, Population growth, Lygosominae, Eulamprus


A crucial step in conserving biodiversity is to identify the distributions of threatened species and the factors associated with species threat status. In the biodiversity hotspot of the Himalaya, very little is known about which locations harbour the highest diversity of threatened species and whether diversity of such species is related to area, mid-domain effects (MDE), range size, or human density. In this study, we assessed the drivers of variation in richness of threatened birds, mammals, reptiles, actinopterygii, and amphibians along an elevational gradient in Nepal Himalaya.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Evolution, Species, Population, Reptile, Mammal, Population density, Endangered species


Localised patterns of species diversity can be influenced by many factors, including regional species pools, biogeographic features and interspecific interactions. Despite recognition of these issues, we still know surprisingly little about how invertebrate biodiversity is structured across geographic scales. In particular, there have been few studies of how insect communities vary geographically while using the same plant host. We compared the composition (species, genera) and functional structure (guilds) of the chalcid wasp communities associated with the widespread fig tree, Ficus benjamina, towards the northern (Hainan province, China) and southern (Queensland, Australia) edges of its natural range. Sequence data were generated for nuclear and mtDNA markers and used to delimit species, and Bayesian divergence analyses were used to test patterns of community cohesion through evolutionary time.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Biology, Species, Insect, Ecology, Ficus, Fig wasp, Ficus benjamina