Less snow from climate change pushes evolution of browner birds

7 09 2017
© Bill Doherty

© Bill Doherty

Climate changes exert selective pressures on the reproduction and survival of species. A study of tawny owls from Finland finds that the proportion of two colour morphs varies in response to the gradual decline of snowfall occurring in the boreal region.

Someone born in the tropics who travels to the Antarctic or the Himalaya can, of course, stand the cold (with a little engineering help from clothing, however). The physiology of our body is flexible enough to tolerate temperatures alien to those of our home. We can acclimate and, if we are healthy, we can virtually reside anywhere in the world.

However, modern climate change is steadily altering the thermal conditions of the native habitats of many species. Like us, some can live up to as much heat or cold as their genetic heritage permits, because each species can express a range of morphological, physiological, and behavioural variation (plasticity). Others can modify their genetic make-up, giving way to novel species-specific features or genotypes (evolution).

When genetic changes are speedy, that is, within a few generations, we are witnessing ‘microevolution’ — in contrast to ‘macroevolution’ across geological time scales as originally reported by Darwin and Wallace (1). To date, the detection of microevolution in response to modern climate change remains elusive, and many studies claiming so seem to lack the appropriate data to differentiate microevolution from phenotypic plasticity (i.e., the capacity of a single genotype to exhibit variable phenotypes in different environments) (2, 3). Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not all about temperature for corals

31 05 2017


Three of the coral species studied by Muir (2): (a) Acropora pichoni: Pohnpei Island, Pacific Ocean — deep-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; (b) Acropora divaricate: Maldives, Indian ocean — mid-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; and (c) Acropora gemmifera: Orpheus Island, Australia — shallow-water species/IUCN ‘Least Concern’. The IUCN states that the 3 species are vulnerable to climate change (acidification, temperature extremes) and demographic booms of the invading predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci. Photos courtesy of Paul Muir.

Global warming of the atmosphere and the oceans is modifying the distribution of many plants and animals. However, marine species are bound to face non-thermal barriers that might preclude their dispersal over wide stretches of the sea. Sunlight is one of those invisible obstacles for corals from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

If we were offered a sumptuous job overseas, our professional success in an unknown place could be limited by factors like cultural or linguistic differences that have nothing to do with our work experience or expertise. If we translate this situation into biodiversity terms, one of the best-documented effects of global warming is the gradual dispersal of species tracking their native temperatures from the tropics to the poles (1). However, as dispersal progresses, many species encounter environmental barriers that are not physical (e.g., a high mountain or a wide river), and whose magnitude could be unrelated to ambient temperatures. Such invisible obstacles can prevent the establishment of pioneer populations away from the source.

Corals are ideal organisms to study this phenomenon because their life cycle is tightly geared to multiple environmental drivers (see ReefBase: Global Information System for Coral Reefs). Indeed, the growth of a coral’s exoskeleton relies on symbiotic zooxanthellae (see video and presentation), a kind of microscopic algae (Dinoflagellata) whose photosynthetic activity is regulated by sea temperature, photoperiod and dissolved calcium in the form of aragonite, among other factors.

Read the rest of this entry »

Spring asynchrony in migratory birds

15 05 2017

Brent geese flock in the Limfjorden (Denmark)courtesy of Kevin Clausen. The Brent goose (Branta bernicla) is a migratory goose that breeds in Arctic coasts, as well as in northern Eurasia and the Americas, starting from late May to early June. Adults are about 0.5 m long, weigh some 2 kg and live up to 30 years. Their nests are placed in the ground, where reproductive pairs incubate a single clutch (≤ 5 eggs) for a couple of months. They are herbivores, feeding on algae (mainly Zostera marina in Limfjord) and seagrass in estuaries, fjords, intertidal areas and rocky beaches during fall and winter. During summer they feed on tundra herbs, moss, lichens, as well as aquatic plants in rivers and lakes. The species is ‘Least Concern’ for the IUCN, with a global population at some 600,000 individuals.

Migratory birds synchronise their travel from non-breeding to breeding quarters with the seasonal conditions optimal for reproduction. Above all, they decide when to migrate on the basis of the climate of their wintering areas while they are there. As climate change involves earlier springs in the Arctic but not in the wintering areas, there is a lack of synchronisation that leads to a demographic decline of these birds in the polar regions where they breed.

When I think about how species respond to climate change, the song from the ClashShould I stay or should I go” comes to mind. As climate changes, species eventually have to face an ultimate choice: (i) stay and adapt to novel conditions or become locally extinct if adaptation fails, (ii) or move to other regions where climatic conditions should be more suitable. Migratory species have to face this decision every time they have to move back and forth from non-breeding to breeding grounds.

Migration is a behavioural strategy shared by different animal groups like sea turtles, mammals, amphibians, insects or birds. Species move from one area to another usually to feed and reproduce in the best climatic conditions possible. For birds, migration is a common phenomenon that typically entails large movements between breeding and wintering grounds. These vertebrates boast some of the longest migratory distances known in the animal kingdom, particularly seabirds like Artic terns, which can complete up to a round-world trip in a single migratory event between the UK and the Antarctic (1). There are several theories about the mechanisms triggering bird migration, including improving body condition and fitness through unexploited resources (2), reducing parasite load (3), minimizing predation risk (4), maximizing day-light (5), or reducing competition (6, 7). Whatever the cause, birds have to decide when the best moment to migrate is, counting only with the (usually climatic) clues they have at the departure site. Read the rest of this entry »

Singin’ in the heat

9 03 2017
coqui & forest

Common coqui frog male (Eleutherodactylus coqui, snout-to vent length average ~ 3 cm) camouflaged in the fronds of an epiphyte in the El Yunque National Forest (Puerto Rico), along with an image of the enchanted forest of the Sierra de Luquillo where Narins & Meenderink did their study (4) – photos courtesy of Thomas Fletcher. This species can be found from sea level to the top of the highest peak in Puerto Rico (Cerro Punta = 1338 m). Native to mesic ecosystems, common coquis are well adapted to a terrestrial life, e.g., they lack interdigital webbing that support swimming propulsion in many amphibians, and youngsters hatch directly from the egg without transiting a tadpole stage. The IUCN catalogues the species as ‘Least Concern’ though alerts recent declines in high-altitude populations caused by chytrid fungus – lethal to amphibians at a planetary scale (9). Remarkably, the species has been introduced to Florida, Hawaii, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands where it can become a pest due to high fertility rates (several >20 egg clutches/female/year).

Frog songs are species-specific and highly useful for the study of tropical communities, which host the highest amphibian diversities globally. The auditory system of females and the vocal system of males have co-evolved to facilitate reproductive encounters, but global warming might be disrupting the frequency of sound-based encounters in some species..

It is a rainy night, and Don (Gene Kelly) has just left his love, Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), at home, starting one of the most famous musical movie scenes ever: Singin’ in the rain 

Amphibians (see Amphibians for kids by National Geographic) also love to sing in rainy nights when males call for a partner, but now they have to do it in hotter conditions as local climates become warmer. Vocal behaviour is a critical trait in the life history of many frog species because it mediates recognition between individuals, including sexual selection by females (1).

With few exceptions, every species has a different and unique call, so scientists can use call features to identify species, and this trait is particularly useful in the inventory of diverse tropical communities (2). Differences in call frequency, duration and pitch, and in note, number, and repetition pattern, occur from one species to another. And even within species, songs can vary from individual to individual (as much as there are not two people with the same voice), and be tuned according to body size and environmental temperature (3). Read the rest of this entry »

Where do citizens stand on climate change?

2 01 2017
Talk to the hand

Talk to the hand

Climate change caused by industrialisation is modifying the structure and function of the Biosphere. As we uncork 2017, our team launches a monthly section on plant and animal responses to modern climate change in the Spanish magazine Quercus – with an English version in Conservation Bytes. The initiative is the outreach component of a research project on the expression and evolution of heat-shock proteins at the thermal limits of Iberian lizards (papers in progress), supported by the British Ecological Society and the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness. The series will feature key papers (linking climate change and biodiversity) that have been published in the primary literature throughout the last decade. To set the scene, we start off putting the emphasis on how people perceive climate change.

Salvador Herrando-Pérez, David R. Vieites & Miguel B. Araújo

“I would like to mention a cousin of mine, who is a Professor in Physics at the University of Seville – and asked about this matter [climate change], he stated: listen, I have gathered ten of the top scientists worldwide, and none has guaranteed what the weather will be like tomorrow in Seville, so how could anyone predict what is going to occur in the world 300 years ahead?”

Mariano Rajoy (Spanish President from 2011 to date) in a public speech on 22 October 2007

Weather (studied by meteorology) behaves like a chaotic system, so a little variation in the atmosphere can trigger large meteorological changes in the short term that are hard to predict. On the contrary, climate (studied by climatology) is a measure of average conditions in the long term and thus far more predictable than weather. There is less uncertainty in a climate prediction for the next century than in a weather prediction for the next month. The incorrect statement made by the Spanish President reflects harsh misinformation and/or lack of environment-related knowledge among our politicians.

Climate has changed consistently from the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The IPCC’s latest report stablishes with 95 to 100% certainty (solid evidence and high consensus given published research) that greenhouse gases from human activities are the main drivers of global warming since the second half of the 20th Century (1,2). The IPCC also flags that current concentrations of those gases have no parallel in the last 800,000 years, and that climate predictions for the 21st Century vary mostly according to how we manage our greenhouse emissions (1,3). Read the rest of this entry »

How to find fossils

30 03 2016

Many palaeontologists and archaeologists might be a little put out by the mere suggestion that they can be told by ecologists how to do their job better. That is certainly not our intention.

Like fossil-hunting scientists, ecologists regularly search for things (individuals of species) that are rare and difficult to find, because surveying the big wide world for biodiversity is a challenge that we have faced since the dawn of our discipline. In fact, much of the mathematical development of ecology stems from this probabilistic challenge — for example, species distribution models are an increasingly important component of both observational and predictive ecology.

IMG_1277But the palaeo types generally don’t rely on mathematical models to ‘predict’ where fossils might be hiding just under the surface. Even I’ve done what most do when trying to find a fossil — go to a place where fossils have already been found and start fossicking. I’ve done this now with very experienced sedimentary geologists in the Flinders Rangers looking for 550 million year-old Ediacaran fossils, and most recently searching for Jurassic fossils (mainly ammonites) on the southern coast of England (Devon’s Jurassic Coast). My prized ammonite find is shown in the photo to the left.

If you’ve read anything on this blog before, you’ll probably know that I’m getting increasingly excited about palaeo-ecology, with particular emphasis on Australia’s late-Pleistocene and early Holocene mass-extinction of megafauna. So with a beautiful, brand-new, shiny, and quality-rated megafauna dataset1, we cheekily decided to take fossil hunting to the next level by throwing mathematics at the problem.

Just published2 in PloS One, I’m happy to announce our newest paper entitled Where to dig for fossils: combining climate-envelope, taphonomy and discovery models.

Of course, we couldn’t just treat fossil predictions like ecological ones — there are a few more steps involved because we are dealing with long-dead specimens. Our approach therefore involved three steps: Read the rest of this entry »

InvaCost – estimating the economic damage of invasive insects

7 11 2014

insectinvasionThis is a blosh (rehash of someone else’s blog post) of Franck Courchamp‘s posts on an exciting new initiative of which I am excited to be a part. Incidentally, Franck’s spending the week here in Adelaide.

Don’t forgot to vote for the project to receive 50 000 € public-communication grant!

Climate change will make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, but there are many questions remaining regarding whether such insects will be able to invade other regions as the climate shifts. There are many nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. I hope that we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators:

If bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years.

(we all should remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that most of us understood). The highly invasive red fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion is spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. Tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. We could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonise northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where, when and which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

We’ve proposed to study these and others from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide, and we got selected (i.e., financed!) by the Fondation BNP Paribas. In addition, the Fondation BNP Paribas has selected five scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50,000 € (that’s US$62,000) to the one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost. Read the rest of this entry »