This boring-looking grass can occupy an extra 10,000 square miles, thanks to a helpful fungus

Mutualisms, in which two or more species provide each other with services or resources that they can’t produce on their own, are everywhere you find living things. Mutualists offer protection, help transport pollen, and provide key nutrients.

Even when a mutualist’s services aren’t absolutely vital, they can help make stressful environments tolerable. That’s the insight behind a new study that finds the help from one group of mutualists could allow an unremarkable-looking species of grass to colonize more than 25,000 square kilometers (almost 10,000 square miles) of territory where it otherwise wouldn’t survive.

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Scientists at work among the Joshua trees

When he’s not dismantling racist pseudoscience, Chris Smith studies the evolutionary ecology of species interactions. Willamette University sent along a videographer on Chris’s last field trip to study Joshua trees and the moths that pollinate them in central Nevada, and the result is now posted on Vimeo. It’s mainly geared toward showcasing how Willamette undergraduate students participate in the fieldwork, but I’d say it makes the desert look mighty good, too.

Pollination syndromes point to species interactions present and past

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Cardinal Flower

Want hummingbirds? Paint the town red. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region.

In my part of North America, spring is finally underway after a long slog of a winter. The trees lining the streets of my Minneapolis neighborhood are lacy-green with budding leaves, flowerbeds all over the University of Minnesota campus are yellow and red and pink with daffodils and tulips, and violets are popping up in the edges of lawns everywhere I look.

Of course, all of this colorful display isn’t for my benefit. Showy flowers are an adaptation to attract animal pollinators. Some flowers are quite precisely matched to a single species of pollinator, but most flowers have lots of visitors. These less specialized flowers are still adapted for their attractive function, though—and this is the origin of pollination syndromes.

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How many moths must a sloth carry off for the sloth to rely on the moths?

Three Toed Sloth

Is it easier being green? Photo by Bas Boemsaat.

Sloths are weird critters. Cute, in a certain light, but mostly weird. They’re members—with armadillos and anteaters—in a superorder of mammals called the Xenarthra, which are united by a unique form of multi-jointed vertebrae. Their diet consists mostly of leaves, which are poor quality food, and hard to digest. Fortunately, they also have one of the slowest, lowest-energy lifestyles of any mammal, using heavily modified limbs to hang upside down from branches while they browse, their most recent meal fermenting in their guts.

David Attenborough got up close with a sloth—which he calls a “mobile compost heap”—in The Life of Mammals. He also observes one of the sloth’s weirdest behaviors: to answer the call of nature, it climbs all the way down to the ground.

Why do sloths go to all that trouble—and risk—just to poop? Well, according to a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society, they do it to feed poop-eating moths that help cultivate nutritious algae in their fur. No, but really.

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Ed Yong on mind-controlling parasites

Here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, we’re fascinated by all the weird, baroque ways that living things influence and coevolve with each other—so Ed Yong’s new TED talk about mind-controlling parasites is right up our alley. Just like his writing—currently on display at National Geographic‘s Phenomena, among many other venues—it’s a compendium of nifty natural history punctuated with highly educational gross-outs and the occasional black-belt level pun.

When a bad bird goes good … and then bad again.

cuckoos

Brood parasites are definitely the bullies of the avian world.  They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, sometimes destroying the host’s own eggs or just waiting for their nestlings to do the dirty work after they hatch.  They then outcompete any surviving host nestlings for food, while the poor host parents are worked to the bone to feed the monstrous nest invader.

In spite of the steep costs of nest parasitism, most avian host species do not have effective mechanisms for detecting and removing brood parasites from their nests.  So, why don’t mama birds notice they have a GIANT intruder in their nest and carry out some infanticide of their own?  One hypothesis is that the cost of a mother bird making a mistake and pushing the wrong baby out (i.e. her own) outweighs the benefit of developing such a behavior.

This week in Science, Canestrari et al. published evidence for another hypothesis – that sometimes, it might actually be good to have your nest parasitized.

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The cost of attracting pollinators is … attracting everyone else

Flowers of Dalechampia scan dens, with key measurements indicated. Figure 1 of Perez-Barrales et al. (2013).

Flowers of Dalechampia scandens, with key measurements indicated. Figure 1 of Perez-Barrales et al. (2013).

Flowers that rely on animal pollinators to remix their genetic material have evolved a tremendous diversity of strategies for attracting those pollinators—from beguiling scents to elaborate visual displays to pretending to be a lady pollinator.

But there’s a downside to making a big, showy display to attract pollinators—you might also attract visitors who have less helpful intentions than gathering up some pollen and moving on to the next flower. Showy flowers might attract animals that steal the rewards offered to pollinators—or they might attract animals that eat the flowers themselves, or the developing seeds created by pollination. So the evolution of attractive floral displays might very well be a compromise between attracting the right visitors, and attracting the wrong ones.

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When the going gets tough, mutualism gets going

C. alliodora III

Cordia alliodora. Photo by Karen Blix.

Evolution by natural selection is not usually considered very peaceful—the “survival of the fittest” is usually assumed to come at the expense of competitors for food or shelter or other resources. But the “fittest” can also be those who recruit assistance from other individuals, or other species—and who provide assistance in return.

This was the perspective of Peter Kropotkin, a Russian prince and political anarchist who studied the wildlife of Siberia while working as an agent of the Czar’s government. In the harsh conditions of the Siberian winter, Kropotkin reported finding not a bitter struggle over scarce resources, but what he called “Mutual Aid” among species, as well as in the human settlements that managed to eke out a living.

Something like what Kropotkin described is documented in a new paper by Elizabeth Pringle and colleagues. Examining a protection mutualism between ants and the tropical Central American tree Cordia alliodora, Pringle et al. found that drier, more stressful environments supported more investment in the mutualism.

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Research and teaching postdoc in the population genomics of mutualism

2010.04.05 - Samson out and about

One of your future colleagues in the Smith Lab, hard at work in the field.

Friend of the blog—and longtime collaborator of mine—Chris Smith recently landed an NSF CAREER grant for new research on the causes of evolutionary divergence within the Joshua tree-yucca moth mutualism—and he’s looking for a postdoc to help with it!

The proposed work will take advantage of new genomic resources for the genus Yucca—Joshua tree population genetics is about to get a lot more powerful than the 10 microsatellite loci I used for my dissertation research. And it will involve fieldwork in the Mojave Desert, which is objectively one of the most beautiful empty spaces on the map of North America. Chris is on the faculty of Willamette University, which is an undergraduate institution, so the postdoc position is also a unique opportunity to do basic research in close coordination with an undergraduate teaching program.

Moreover, I can personally recommend Chris as a mentor and collaborator—to the extent that I’ve turned out to be a pretty decent scientist, he’s one of the principal reasons why. (And to the extent that I haven’t, well, that’s a reflection on me, not him.)

The complete job description, and instructions on how to apply, are after the jump.

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Your dinner or your life: What determines the sprint speed of gazelles, zebras, giraffes … and ostriches?

2010 076 Masai Mara b 24

Thomson gazelle, on the run. Photo by ngari.norway

In the evolutionary history of big herbivores and the carnivores that prey upon them, the phrase “arms race” is only technically a metaphor. Antelope and zebras are literally born to run, and many of the things that chase them, like wild dogs or cheetahs, are either masters of endurance or champion sprinters. The evolutionary story almost writes itself: over millions of years of chasing, and being chased, whenever the predators evolved to become faster, the prey were selected to run even faster—until a cat evolves that can go from 0 to 60 faster than my Volkswagen Rabbit.

Except of course there’s more to life than running for your life. An antelope’s frame is under more demands than evading cheetahs—it also needs to travel long distances to follow food availability with the shifting rainy season. In fact, the North American fossil record suggests that big herbivores on that continent evolved long legs for distance running millions of years before there were predators able to chase after them. And then again, not all predators run their prey down; lions, for instance, prefer to pounce from ambush.

In a paper recently released online ahead of print in the journal Evolution, Jakob Bro-Jørgensen sets out to disentangle exactly these competing explanations.

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