Understanding the evolution of nocturnal mammals by studying their extinct relatives

Humans are diurnal. We sleep at night and are active during the day. (That isn’t to say that I feel particularly diurnal most mornings, given that my alarm has to make it through a few snooze cycles to wake me up and coffee is the only thing keeping me from napping under my desk at work.) Most mammals, though, don’t share our ostensible predilection for daylight; only 20% of mammal species are diurnal like us. Of our mammalian relatives, nearly 70% are nocturnal. The rest are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) or cathemeral (active during both day and night).

A tarsier (Flickr: )

A tarsier from Borneo. (Flickr: Erwin Bolwidt)

Mammalogists like myself often think nocturnality is a particularly mammalian thing because—let’s be honest here—nearly all of the coolest nocturnal vertebrates are mammals. How can you compete with the likes of tarsiers, vampire bats, leopards, and—strangest of them all—the aye-aye? I’ll throw the ornithologists a bone and acknowledge the enduring awesomeness of owls, but they are the odd birds out in a group that’s mostly diurnal.

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Random Natural History: Ebola

through a glass, darkly

Currently there is a catastrophic outbreak of Ebola happening in West Africa. Over 1700 infections have been recorded with nearly 1000 deaths, making it the deadliest outbreak of ebola known. Infection results in a hemorrhagic fever, which starts out a bit like the influenza, but can result in bleeding from mucous membranes, organ failure, and ultimately death. But what is Ebola?

Ebola is a Filovirus. Filoviruses are a small group of viruses only known to infect mammals. They are so named because of their filamentous shape. They have tiny genomes, only ~19,000 base pairs in length, containing only seven protein coding genes and two regulatory regions. By contrast, the human genome is over 3 billion base pairs, contains around twenty thousand genes and has innumerable (by which I mean as yet unnumbered regulatory regions). Because of ebola’s simplicity, (as with all viruses), it cannot reproduce without commandeering the cellular machinery of its hosts. In the words of Cormac McCarthy, These anonymous creatures… may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us.

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Why we should all (evolutionary biologists) be excited about studying Cannabis.

 

c1

Figure 1. Cannabis plants at the Centennial Seeds facilities.

This is a guest post by Daniela Vergara, a postdoctoral researcher studying the genomic architecture of hybrid species of sunflowers and Cannabis in Nolan Kane’s Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  Daniela also blogs about science at A Ciencia Abierta. Check out her blog for a spanish version of this post.

Cannabis is definitely a cool plant. It has fun names like matanuska thunderfuck, jesus OG or trainwreck and it has been trendy among humans for a very long time (humans have utilized it for thousands of years). Despite this long history, and the fact that Cannabis is the most widely used recreational drug in the world [1], the genomics and the general the biology of these plants have only been partially studied. At the Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative (CGRI) at the University of Colorado Boulder we want to study this genus of plants for several reasons, including: (i) its medical significance, (ii) its importance in the biofuel, fiber, oil, textile and food industries, (iii) its long co-evolutionary relationship with humans as an ancient crop, and (iv) in general, because it is an exciting emerging study system in evolutionary biology.

Why should evolutionary biologists be excited about studying Cannabis?

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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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Alvin, Simon and Theodosius Dobzhansky*

You know the type. Big, brown eyes. Cute, little nose. Long, striped tail.

Tamias amoenus canicaudus, Steptoe Butte, WA, photo: Noah M Reid

Tamias amoenus canicaudus, Steptoe Butte, WA, photo: Noah M Reid

Chipmunks are adorable and one of the more easily viewed yet still kind of exotic North American mammals (in my opinion). I worked on red-tailed chipmunks for my Master’s degree at the University of Idaho with Jack Sullivan. Sullivan (et al.) just published a review of all the chipmunk research that’s taken place in his lab over the past 10 years or so. Central to the review is the concept of divergence with gene flow (DGF), but let’s start with some back story.

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Learn the origins of fairytales with this 1 weird trick!

Figure 4 from Tehrani 2013. The result of a network analysis among fairy tales. The large number of well spaced network connections from the East Asian group is suggestive of blending between the other two major groups.

Figure 4 from Tehrani 2013. The result of a network analysis among fairy tales. The large number of well spaced network connections from the East Asian group is suggestive of blending between the other two major groups.

In a pretty interesting example of cross fertilization between scientific disciplines, a recently published paper by Jashmid Tehrani uses phylogenetic methods borrowed from evolutionary biology to construct an “evolutionary tree” of fables related to Little Red Riding Hood.

Tales typical of Riding Hood are found mostly in Europe, but a series of stories sharing some features are found in Africa (involving an Ogre) and East Asia (The Tiger Grandmother). These have sometimes been considered to be part of the Riding Hood group, but there has been debate over whether or not they actually belong to another, closely related group found in Europe and the Middle East known as The Wolf and the Kids.

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52 million year old fossil sheds light on swift and hummingbird flight evolution

IMG_4718  Whiskered Tree Swift (female)

This week we have a guest post by Jessica Oswald a graduate student at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. She works on the biogeography of neotropical birds using fossil, ecological, and molecular genetic data.

As an avian paleontologist, digging through fossils is to me like birding with a time machine. These fossils help us paint a picture of where modern forms came from and how different ancient species were from modern-day birds, especially intermediate forms. These outliers and in-betweeners are interesting because they hint at all sorts of morphological diversity that we don’t even know or expect, and give us a window into the past and how different diversity, communities, and climatic conditions and landscapes were from what we are familiar with today.

This paper (Ksepka et al. 2013) on an early bird in the Swift-hummingbird clade does both of these things by exhibiting an odd morphology that we don’t see in modern birds, and helps us understand how the uniquely specialized wing shapes in modern swifts and hummingbirds arose from their common ancestor.

Members of the order Apodiformes: treeswifts (Hemiprocnidae), true swifts (Apodidae), and hummingbirds (Trochilidae), are aerial marvels. Swifts are able to reach the highest speeds during level flight (Chantler 1999) and hummingbirds are well known for their hovering abilities and their sideways and backward flight. Swifts and hummingbirds, while sharing the same wing bone characteristics, have different lengths of flight feathers, resulting in different wing shapes across the group, which allows them to perform their different aerial feats. Hummingbirds have shorter wings relative to their body size compared to swifts, resulting in their hovering abilities. These different wing shapes are well suited for their modern functions, but we have almost no fossils from this group, so we don’t know how the wing shapes diverged, or anything about the ecology of ancient species in this lineage.

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