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This site summarizes research articles about mammals for the general public.

Jim Ryan
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  • November 14, 2013
  • 11:50 AM

Hyena Scent Posts Use Symbiotic Microbe Messengers

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Animals’ scent posts may be equally as short, relatively speaking, yet they convey an encyclopedia of information about the animals that left them.

In the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Michigan State University researcher shows that the detailed scent posts of hyenas (Figure 1) are, in part, products of symbiotic bacteria, microbes that have a mutually beneficial relationship with their hosts.

“When hyenas leave paste deposits on grass, the sour-smelling signals relay reams of information for other animals to read,” said Kevin Theis, the paper’s lead author and MSU postdoctoral researcher. ... It’s like a bulletin board of who’s around and how they’re doing.”

...A spotted hyena scent marking. (courtesy of Michigan State University)

Interestingly, it is the bacteria in pastes – more diverse than scientists had imagined – that appear to be doing the yeoman’s job of sending these messages.

“Scent posts are bulletin boards, pastes are business cards, and bacteria are the ink, shaped into letters and words that provide information about the paster to the boards’ visitors,” Theis said. “Without the ink, there is potentially just a board of blank uninformative cards.”

Theis, who co-authored the study with Kay Holekamp, MSU zoologist, studied multiple groups of male and female spotted hyenas and striped hyenas in Kenya.

By using molecular surveys, they were afforded unprecedented views of the diversity of microbes inhabiting mammals’ scent glands. The researchers were able to show that the diversity of odor-producing bacteria in spotted hyena scent glands is much greater than historical studies of mammals had suggested (Figure 2).

...Variation in the bacterial communities and volatile fatty acid (VFA) profiles of the pastes of immigrant male, lactating female, and pregnant female spotted hyenas in the Talek clan. (A and C) A plot showing variation in the structure of paste bacterial communities among Talek clan members. (B) A heat map of the mean abundances of the prominent bacteria in the pastes of Talek hyenas. (D) A heat map of the mean percent abundances of VFAs in the pastes of Talek hyenas.

...The diversity, however, still consistently varies between hyena species, and with sex and reproductive state among spotted hyenas, Theis added. Importantly, the variation in scent gland bacterial communities was strongly correlated with variation in the glands’ odor profiles, suggesting that bacteria were responsible for the variation in scent.

For the current paper, Theis’ team was the first to combine microbial surveys and complementary odor data from wild animals. The studies’ findings leave Theis anxious to return to the field.

“Now I just need to get back into the field to test new predictions generated by this study,” Theis said. “The next phase of this research will be to manipulate the bacterial communities in hyenas’ scent glands to test if their odors change in predictable ways.”

Source: Modified from materials provided by Michigan State University.

...Theis KR, Venkataraman A, Dycus JA, Koonter KD, Schmitt-Matzen EN, Wagner AP, Holekamp KE, & Schmidt TM (2013). Symbiotic bacteria appear to mediate hyena social odors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 24218592
... Read more »

Theis KR, Venkataraman A, Dycus JA, Koonter KD, Schmitt-Matzen EN, Wagner AP, Holekamp KE, & Schmidt TM. (2013) Symbiotic bacteria appear to mediate hyena social odors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 24218592  

  • September 29, 2013
  • 10:22 AM

Ecology Determines Rabies Infection in Bats

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

A new approach to rabies virus epidemiology in bats shows that the risk of infection is higher in large and multispecies colonies. The research, published on the journal PLOS ONE, was led by Jordi Serra-Cobo, professor from the Department of Animal Biology at the UB and the Biodiversity Research Institute (IRBio).

Bats are a large group of mammals that appeared in our planet around 65 million years ago (Figure 1). They have colonized many natural habitats —except the poles—, and act as primary predators of vast numbers of insects in ecosystems. They are also the mammals which present the widest variety of virus infection (rabies, SARS, Ebola, etc.). ... “Chiropters, a quite ancient animal group, are major reservoirs for diverse infectious viral diseases”, highlights Serra-Cobo. They have co-lived with virus for a long time and their immunological responses are more effective. According to Serra-Cobo, “this fact opens new research lines on the organisms’ immunological response and strategies to fight against infectious diseases”.

...A vespertilionid bat from Spain, one of the more than 1,150 bat species.

It is the first time that a research analyses ecological factors that might affect the infection dynamics of the rabies virus in bat colonies. Between 2001 and 2011, 2,393 blood samples were collected from 20 bats species and 25 localities in Catalonia, Aragon and Balearic Islands. The research is centered on the detection of European bat Lyssavirus 1 (EBL1), one of the twelve different groups of the genus Lyssavirus related to rabies, an emergent zoonosis that affects mammals all over the world.

Jordi Serra-Cobo explains that “EBLV-1 seroprevalence is strongly affected by colony size and species richness. ... Ecological factors play a relevant role in seroprevalence variability, but they were to date unknown” (Figure 2).

...Variation in the percentages of seropositive bats as a function of species richness and colony size. (from Serra-Cobo et al.

...All bat species do not response in the same way to viral infections. This research proves that immunological response to rabies virus varies among species. “Order Chiroptera has been widely diversified along its evolutionary history —affirms Serra Cobo— and their responses to ultrasound orientation mechanisms, immunological defense, etc. vary with different lineages”.

There are more than 1,150 bat species all over the world and new specimens are described every year. However, the loss of natural habitats due to human activity and climate change poses a major threat to bats. “It is a process of environmental degradation which favors the formation of larger bat colonies, which have a higher probability of EBLV-1 infection”, remarks Serra Cobo.

...The new article published on PLOS ONE will provide new tools to know more about viral infections epidemiology and natural resources management.

...Jordi Serra-Cobo,, Marc López-Roig,, Magdalena Seguí,, Luisa Pilar Sánchez,, Jacint Nadal,, Miquel Borrás,, Rachel Lavenir,, & Hervé Bourhy (2013). Ecological Factors Associated with European Bat Lyssavirus Seroprevalence in Spanish Bats PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064467.t003
... Read more »

Jordi Serra-Cobo,, Marc López-Roig,, Magdalena Seguí,, Luisa Pilar Sánchez,, Jacint Nadal,, Miquel Borrás,, Rachel Lavenir,, & Hervé Bourhy. (2013) Ecological Factors Associated with European Bat Lyssavirus Seroprevalence in Spanish Bats. PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064467.t003  

  • September 12, 2013
  • 11:47 AM

Orangutans plan and communicate their travel plans

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to anticipate future actions, whereas animals are caught in the here and now. But in recent years, clever experiments with great apes in zoos have shown that they do remember past events and can plan for their future needs. Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have now investigated whether wild apes also have this skill, following them for several years through the dense tropical swamplands of Sumatra.

It turns out that wild male orangutans do plan their travel route up to one day in advance and communicate it to other members of their species (Figure 1). In order to attract females and repel male rivals, they call in the direction in which they are going to travel. Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have found that not only captive, but also wild-living orangutans make use of their planning ability.

...Orangutans generally journey through the forest alone, but they also maintain social relationships. Adult males sometimes emit loud ‘long calls’ to attract females and repel rivals. Their cheek pads act as a funnel for amplifying the sound in the same way as a megaphone. Females that only hear a faint call come closer in order not to lose contact. Non-dominant males on the other hand hurry in the opposite direction if they hear the call coming loud and clear in their direction (Figure 1).

...A Orangutan males give long calls to attract females (or repel rival males). Female A perceives a faint call compared to female B, even if they are at the same distance from the calling male, because the male is facing female B. If the male is moving in the same direction as he is calling, female A should move in the direction of the male whereas B need not. (from van Schaik et al.

... “To optimize the effect of these calls, it thus would make sense for the male to call in the direction of his future whereabouts, if he already knew about them”, explains Carel van Schaik. “We then actually observed that the males traveled for several hours in approximately the same direction as they had called.” In extreme cases, long calls made around nesting time in the evening predicted the travel direction better than random until the evening of the next day. Carel van Schaik and his team conclude that orangutans plan their route up to a day ahead.

In addition, the males often announced changes in travel direction with a new, better-fitting long call. The researchers also found that in the morning, the other orangutans reacted correctly to the long call of the previous evening, even if no new long call was emitted. “Our study makes it clear that wild orangutans do not simply live in the here and now, but can imagine a future and even announce their plans. In this sense, then, they have become a bit more like us”, concludes Carel van Schaik.

...Carel P. van Schaik,, Laura Damerius,, & Karin Isler (2013). Wild Orangutan Males Plan and Communicate Their Travel Direction One Day in Advance PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0074896
... Read more »

  • August 28, 2013
  • 02:37 PM

Cynodont Therapsids Thrive After Late Permian Mass Extinction

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Cynodont therapsids – ancient closest relatives of modern mammals – the not only survived the greatest mass extinction of all time, 252 million years ago, but thrived in the aftermath, according to new research published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The first mammals arose in the Triassic period, over 225 million years ago.  They included small shrew-like animals such as Morganucodon from England, Megazostrodon from South Africa, and Bienotherium from China.

...Two juvenile skeletons of the cynodont Thrinaxodon liorhinus. (Image by Photo credit Roger Smith, Iziko Museums of South Africa Social History / Natural History / Art Collections)

They had differentiated teeth (incisors, canines, molars) and large brains and were probably warm-blooded and covered in fur – all characteristics that make them stand apart from their reptile ancestors, and which contribute to their huge success today.

However, new research from the University of Lincoln, the National Museum in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and the University of Bristol suggests that this array of unique features arose step-wise over a long span of time, and that the first mammals may have arisen as a result of the end-Permian mass extinction which wiped out 90 per cent of marine organisms and 70 per cent of terrestrial species (Figure 2).

...Cynodont tree plotted onto a stratigraphic scale; rectangular bars or dots show the known observed ranges of taxa.

...Dr Marcello Ruta of the University of Lincoln, lead author of the study, said: "Mass extinctions are seen as entirely negative.  However, in this case, cynodont therapsids, which included a very small number of species before the extinction, really took off afterwards and were able to adapt to fill many very different niches in the Triassic – from carnivores to herbivores.”

Co-author Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink of the National Museum in Bloemfontein, South Africa said: "During the Triassic, the cynodonts split into two groups, the cynognathians and the probainognathians.  The first were mainly plant-eaters, the second mainly flesh-eaters, and the two groups seemed to rise and fall at random, first one expanding, and then the other.  In the end, the probainognathians became the most diverse and most varied in adaptations, and they gave rise to the first mammals some 25 million years after the mass extinction."

Co-author Professor Michael Benton of the University of Bristol said: "We saw that when a major group, such as cynodonts, diversifies it is the body shape or range of adaptations that expands first.  The diversity, or number of species, rises after all the morphologies available to the group have been tried out."

The researchers concluded that cynodont diversity rose steadily during the recovery of life following the mass extinction with their range of form rising rapidly at first before hitting a plateau.  This suggests there is no particular difference in morphological diversity between the very first mammals and their immediate cynodont predecessors.

Source: Modified from materials provided by the University of Bristol.

...Marcello Ruta1, Jennifer Botha-Brink2,3, Stephen A. ... The radiation of cynodonts and

the ground plan of mammalian

... Proceedings of the Royal Society B DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1865
... Read more »

Marcello Ruta1, Jennifer Botha-Brink2,3, Stephen A. Mitchell4, & and Michael J. Benton. (2013) The radiation of cynodonts and the ground plan of mammalian morphological diversity . Proceedings of the Royal Society B. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1865  

  • July 2, 2012
  • 09:29 AM

Attractive Gorillas Have the Reproductive Edge

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Sexual selection and natural selection are evolutionary processes that shape the way a species behaves and looks over time. Scientists continue to provide evidence that natural selection not only occurred in the past but is continuing to shape species today. Demonstrating selection in the wild is always difficult and it is made even more so when the subject of the study is an animal as large (and difficult to measure) as the western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla). Fortunately, these massive primates are sexually dimorphic. Thus, if scientists can prove that males with more extreme male features get more mates, and that their offspring survive better than those sired by less extreme male phenotypes, they can show that sexual selection is currently shaping the species.

Researchers measured crest size, gluteal muscle size, and overall length by taking digital photographs of the apes and then measuring them using software (Figure 1). This method was preferred because it was non-invasive (so it wouldn't affect the way individual gorillas interacted with other gorillas in the group), and because it didn't put the researchers in close proximity with the gorillas. They used the number of offspring sired by individual males that survived to weaning age, number of offspring born within the individual's group that survived to weaning age, and the number of females within the group, to define reproductive success.

...Examples of photographs used for assessing for body length (A) and crest size (B). (From Breuer et al., 2012)

Because males sometimes go through solitary periods and then acquire females years later, this was a long term study. Researchers spent twelve and a half years at Mbeli Bai, a forest clearing in the Republic of Congo, peering into telescopes to watch as gorilla groups came and went. They estimated ages for all of the gorillas, and noted when infants were born and died at roughly two weeks intervals.

The researchers found several trends in the success of an individual male gorilla’s offspring. Males with larger crests sired more offspring and had larger harems than males with smaller crests. Males with longer body lengths also had larger female harems, but did not sire more offspring. Male gorillas with larger crests and bigger gluteal muscles tended to have more females, and that their offspring more frequently survived until weaning (Figure 2).

...Graphs of the relationship between the average number of mates per male and crest size (A) and body length (B). Best fit lines are for the data were calculated by linear regression. (From Breuer et al., 2012)

These findings indicate that sexual selection is currently happening in western gorillas; the positive correlation between specific morphological traits and the ability to produce and protect offspring demonstrates that certain genes are being selected for in western gorilla populations. While the results are promising, the authors of the study note that biomechanical, kinematic, and genetic studies on western gorillas would help to demonstrate that these traits are heritable and strengthen the evidence for selection for larger body traits in male gorillas.

...Breuer T, Robbins AM, Boesch C, & Robbins MM (2012). Phenotypic correlates of male reproductive success in western gorillas. Journal of human evolution, 62 (4), 466-72 PMID: 22386152
... Read more »

Breuer T, Robbins AM, Boesch C, & Robbins MM. (2012) Phenotypic correlates of male reproductive success in western gorillas. Journal of human evolution, 62(4), 466-72. PMID: 22386152  

  • June 14, 2012
  • 10:40 AM

The Hidden Lives of Elephant Seals

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who pioneered the use of satellite tags to monitor the migrations of elephant seals have compiled one of the largest datasets available for any marine mammal species, revealing their movements and diving behavior at sea in unprecedented detail.

...A female elephant seal carries GPS tags that will monitor its location, swim speed, and depth and duration of dives.

...A new study published May 15 in the journal PLoS ONE focuses on the annual migrations of adult female elephant seals, with data from nearly 300 animals. The results show elephant seals traveling throughout the entire northeast Pacific Ocean on foraging trips in search of prey such as fish and squid.

...For the first time we can truly say that we know what the elephant seal population is doing," said Daniel Costa, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and leader of the elephant seal research group at UC Santa Cruz.

...The researchers found that individual seals pursue a variety of different foraging strategies, but most of them target one oceanographic feature in particular—a boundary zone between two large rotating ocean currents, or gyres (Figure 2). Along this boundary, the cold nutrient-rich waters of the sub-polar gyre in the north mix with the warmer waters of the subtropical gyre, driving the growth of phytoplankton and supporting a robust food web. Presumably, this leads to a concentration of prey along the boundary, said Patrick Robinson, a postdoctoral researcher in Costa's lab and lead author of the paper.

...Previous studies by Costa and other participants in the Tagging of Pacific Predators program have shown that this boundary zone is important for a wide range of marine predators, including elephant seals, sharks, tuna, and albatrosses. A surface feature associated with the boundary zone, caused by blooms of phytoplankton, is detectable in satellite images, but it moves seasonally as much as 1,000 kilometers to the south. The deep-diving elephant seals do not follow this surface feature, but continue to target the deep boundary zone between the two gyres.

Smaller numbers of female elephant seals feed in coastal regions, pursuing bottom-dwelling prey along the continental shelf, or in other areas outside of the boundary zone such as around seamounts. Among these is a large female that feeds near Vancouver Island and holds the record for deepest recorded dive by an elephant seal. The data analyzed in the paper include one dive to 1,747 meters (5,765 feet, well over a mile), and the same seal dove even deeper on a more recent foraging trip, reaching 1,754 meters (5,788 feet), Robinson said.

...The amount of food a female is able to find on these foraging trips directly affects her breeding success and, if she gives birth, her pup's growth rate and chances of survival.

...Current devices, used on a subset of the seals in this study, can capture an animal's location, swim speed, and depth and duration of dives, as well as the temperature and salinity of the seawater and how that changes with depth.

Most of the animals in this study were tagged at the rookery on Año Nuevo Island, where UCSC researchers have been studying elephant seals for decades. But the study also involved a collaboration with researchers in Mexico to tag elephant seals at Islas San Benito, which is 1,150 kilometers (690 miles) southeast of Año Nuevo. "A lot of those animals travel much further to get to foraging areas in the north, so they might spend an extra week traveling, and we wanted to see how that affects them," Robinson said. "The animals from San Benito that do go up to feed at the boundary zone do fine, but we also found that many of them stayed closer to home, feeding along the continental shelf, and they were successful too."

These findings highlight the adaptability of elephant seals, suggesting that they may be able to withstand environmental perturbations such as climate change because the population is not dependent on a single foraging strategy.

...Costa's group has organized the temperature data collected by the elephant seals into a format that oceanographers can use and uploaded it to the , providing millions of ocean temperature data points not otherwise available.

...Robinson, P., Costa, D., Crocker, D., Gallo-Reynoso, J., Champagne, C., Fowler, M., Goetsch, C., Goetz, K., Hassrick, J., Hückstädt, L., Kuhn, C., Maresh, J., Maxwell, S., McDonald, B., Peterson, S., Simmons, S., Teutschel, N., Villegas-Amtmann, S., & Yoda, K. ... Foraging Behavior and Success of a Mesopelagic Predator in the Northeast Pacific Ocean: Insights from a Data-Rich Species, the Northern Elephant Seal PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036728
... Read more »

  • May 30, 2012
  • 08:59 AM

Rorqual Whales Have Unique New Sensory Organ

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Scientists at the University of British Columbia and the Smithsonian Institution have discovered a sensory organ in rorqual whales that coordinates its signature lunge-feeding behavior – and may help explain their enormous size (Figure 1).

...Scientists dissect tissue samples from the chin of a fin whale in Iceland.

...Rorquals are a subgroup of baleen whales – including blue, fin, minke and humpback whales. They are characterized by a special, accordion-like blubber layer that goes from the snout to the navel. The blubber expands up to several times it’s resting length to allow the whales to engulf large quantities of prey-laden water, which is then expelled through the baleen to filter krill and fish.

The study, to be featured on the cover of the journal Nature, details the discovery of an organ at the tip of the whale’s chin, lodged in the ligamentous tissue that connects their two jaws (Figure 2).

...A new sensory organ, found within the chin of rorqual whales, is responsible for coordinating the biomechanics of their extreme lunge-feeding strategy.  Left, a fin whale after lunging; right, anatomy of the new sensory organ.

...Samples were collected from recently deceased fin and minke whale carcasses captured as part of Icelandic commercial whaling operations. Commercial whaling in Iceland resumed in 2006 and quotas are determined annually by its government.

Scanning of the whale’s chin revealed a grape fruit-sized sensory organ, located between the tips of the jaws, and supplied by neurovascular tissue.

The research team was assisted by technicians at FPInnovations, the owner of Canada’s only X-ray computed tomography (XRCT) machine large enough to accommodate the massive specimens. Used to scan giant logs, the XRCT machine provides a three dimensional map of the internal structure of whale tissues.

“We think this sensory organ sends information to the brain in order to coordinate the complex mechanism of lunge-feeding, which involves rotating the jaws, inverting the tongue and expanding the throat pleats and blubber layer,” says lead author Nick Pyenson, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who conducted the study while a postdoctoral fellow at UBC.

...A fin whale, the second longest whale on the planet, can engulf as much as 80 cubic meters of water and prey – equal or greater than the size of the whale itself – in each gulp in less than six seconds. A previous study by co-author Jeremy Goldbogen showed that a fin whale captures 10 kilograms of krill in each gulp in order to sustain its average 50-ton body mass. Goldbogen, who conducted both studies while a PhD student at UBC, is now a scientist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington.

“In terms of evolution, the innovation of this sensory organ has a fundamental role in one of the most extreme feeding methods of aquatic creatures,” says co-author and UBC Zoology Prof.

...“Because the physical features required to carry out lunge-feeding evolved before the extremely large body sizes observed in today’s rorquals, it’s likely that this sensory organ – and its role in coordinating successful lunging – is responsible for rorquals claiming the largest-animals-on-earth status,” Shadwick adds.

“This also demonstrates how poorly we understand the basic functions of these top predators of the ocean and underlines the importance for biodiversity conservation.”

The study was supported by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Smithsonian Institution. FPInnovations’ XRCT machine was a joint project with the University of Northern British Columbia and funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund.

...Pyenson, N., Goldbogen, J., Vogl, A., Szathmary, G., Drake, R., & Shadwick, R. ... Discovery of a sensory organ that coordinates lunge feeding in rorqual whales Nature, 485 (7399), 498-501 DOI: 10.1038/nature11135 ... Read more »

Pyenson, N., Goldbogen, J., Vogl, A., Szathmary, G., Drake, R., & Shadwick, R. (2012) Discovery of a sensory organ that coordinates lunge feeding in rorqual whales. Nature, 485(7399), 498-501. DOI: 10.1038/nature11135  

  • April 26, 2012
  • 10:00 AM

Face to Face With Primate Facial Diversity

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Why do some primates have boldly colored faces while other species exhibit only a monotone color with little pattern? Facial color patterns likely serve several functions in primates, including intraspecific communication, species recognition, and possibly ecological or physiological roles as well (Figure 1). One hypothesis is that facial color patterns are used primarily for species recognition, with more subtle color variations used to assess individual identity.

...Higher facial color complexity is indicated by reds and oranges and higher numbers. Primate species illustrated include: (1) Cacajao calvus, (2) Callicebus hoffmansi, (3) Ateles belzebuth, (4) Alouatta caraya, (5) Aotus trivirgatus, (6) Cebus nigritus, (7) Saimiri boliviensis, (8) Leontopithecus rosalia, (9) Callithrix kuhli, (10) Saguinus martinsi and (11) Saguinus imperator.

...According to the behavioral drive model, social behaviors drive the evolution of increasingly complex facial colors and fur patterns. An alternative hypothesis, the metachromism hypothesis, provides a non-adaptive explanation for primate color patterns. This hypothesis posits that primate lineages exhibit predictable sequences of color changes over time beginning with the ancestral agouti condition and progressively evolving a more uniform black or red color and ending with an unpigmented bleached color.

Sharlene Santana and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out to test these hypotheses using New World primates. They predicted that species living in smaller groups and in sympatry with more congener species would evolve more complex facial color patterns. In addition, they tested the metachromism hypothesis using a phylogenetic approach to trace color patterns through Neotropical primate lineages. They quantified facial color patterns using photos of adult males from a wide array of Neotropical primate species (Figure 2).

...Primate faces (here a white-faced capuchin monkey, Cebus capucinus) were subdivided into 14 areas (b) to record hair and skin color, and hair length. These 14 areas were grouped into 5 more general regions that varied across species.

...The results reveal that primate facial patterns do function in communication and species recognition. Primate species living in smaller groups and in regions with a higher number of congener species (species within the same genus) have evolved more complex patterns of facial color. ... In fact, ecological factors, and geographical patterns also shaped facial diversity in Neotropical primates (Figure 3). For example, primate species closer to the equator tended to have darker crowns and darker eye masks. Species living in the far western Neotropics tended to have darker noses and mouths, but lighter eye masks.

...Facial parts become darker (regions highlighted in black) or hair becomes longer (region highlighted in grey) in the directions indicated by the arrows.

...Perhaps darker facial regions in more tropical habitats serve to make individuals more cryptic or protect against the powerful UV radiation in these regions. ... Nevertheless, these results “demonstrate the interaction of behavioral and ecological factors in shaping one of the most outstanding facial diversities of any mammalian lineage.”

...Santana, S., Lynch Alfaro, J., & Alfaro, M. ... Adaptive evolution of facial colour patterns in Neotropical primates Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279 (1736), 2204-2211 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2326
... Read more »

Santana, S., Lynch Alfaro, J., & Alfaro, M. (2012) Adaptive evolution of facial colour patterns in Neotropical primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1736), 2204-2211. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2326  

  • April 19, 2012
  • 10:05 AM

Social Evolution in Mole-rats

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) have received a lot of scientific attention because they are the only mammals with a eusocial mating system. Like honey bees, naked mole-rats have colonies with a single breeding “queen,” a few breeding males, and numerous non-breeding “workers” who forage and maintain the complex burrow system. It is not surprising then, that these unusual mammals have received the lion’s share of attention from scientists.

As fascinating as naked mole-rats are, they are but one of 22 species of mole-rats. Interestingly, mole-rats exhibit a very wide range of social behavior, from the eusocial naked mole-rat to species that are completely solitary. This variation in social structure makes them an ideal group for studying the factors that influence the evolution of social behavior in mammals.

Five scientists from the Czech Republic, Germany, and Malawi (Lovy et al., 2012) studied two mole-rat species that live in different ecological habitats in the same region of Malawi. The silvery mole-rat (Heliophobius argenteocinereus, Figure 1) is a solitary species that lives in high altitude grassland habitats, whereas Whyte’s mole-rat (Fukomys whytei) is social and lives in drier, lower-altitude woodlands. The authors sought to tease out what ecological factors drive the evolution of social behavior.

...A slivery mole-rat (Heliophobius sp). (from Chris Faulkes)

Because mole-rats are fossorial, soil quality and food availability are likely to play important roles in shaping their social systems (Figure 2). Whyte’s mole-rats in Malawi live in harsh habitats where soils are harder and food is relatively scarce. In contrast, silvery mole-rats inhabit cooler grasslands where soils are easier to burrow through and where food biomass was four times greater than in the woodlands.

...A principal component analysis showing the relationship between food availability and soil paramters for Heliophobius (NR, North Rumphi; NRa, North Rumphi alluvium; and FL, Fort Lister.) and for Fukomys (J, Jalawe). Open symbols represent burrow systems numbered from lowest to highest altitude.

...Although both solitary and social species of mole-rat coexist in the Nyika Plateau, Malawi, there is niche differentiation between silvery and Whyte’s mole-rats. What factors are responsible for separating the niches of these two species? The authors suggest that the solitary species could not survive in the poor, hard soils of the drier woodlands where patchy underground tubers are in short supply.

In addition, Heliophobius mole-rats, living in afromontane grasslands are subject to colder temperature and consequently have thicker fur and tolerate low temperatures better. Thus, it may be that Fukomys are ill-prepared to compete with Heliophobius at the cooler, higher-altitude grassland sites. In sum, neither food availability, nor soil density alone explain the observed niche differentiation and social structure in these mole-rats. Rather, it is likely to be a combination of thermoregulatory and competitive abilities, perhaps shaped by ecological factors, that explains the evolution of different social systems.

...Lövy, M., Šklíba, J., Burda, H., Chitaukali, W., & Šumbera, R. ... Ecological characteristics in habitats of two African mole-rat species with different social systems in an area of sympatry: implications for the mole-rat social evolution Journal of Zoology, 286 (2), 145-153 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00860.x
... Read more »

  • April 12, 2012
  • 10:09 AM

Meet and Greet in the Dolphin World

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Many people believe that an important difference between humans and other animals is language--that what has brought us from fields and forests to our comfortable homes is our ability to communicate effectively with one another. And so the discovery that humans are not alone in their power of conversation is one that affects our definitions of our selves, and one opens many research opportunities for scientists.

Research into the calls made by bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) at sea indicates that as dolphin groups encounter one another they exchange unique whistles; researchers claim that the whistles carried information about their identity and alliances with other individuals. In captivity, dolphins and parrots can learn to use signals to convey information about their surroundings, but there isn't much research about whether or not they use these techniques in the wild.

...Every bottlenose dolphin has a unique whistle that they develop at a young age and practice while alone. After a call has been established, males and females differ in their use of signature whistles: females' calls tend to stay stable for about a decade, while males' whistles change to reflect alliances with other individuals. They also have been known to copy the unique calls of their companions--similar to a human calling a friend's name to attract his attention.

By using passive acoustic localization while following pods in Saint Andrews Bay, Scotland the researchers found that unique whistle exchanges mainly occurred when groups first encountered each other (Figure 2). They ensured that the whistle exchanges were unique by running a sequence analysis, and also noted that none of the calls were repeated.

...(From Quick and Janik 2012)

Data was collected over the course of six months, and scientists used focal boats to follow pods of dolphins during good weather. Individuals were identified with photos of their dorsal fins, and groups were defined by the distance between dolphins (less than ten meters apart equaled a group). Then using both visual data indicating the position of each dolphin and auditory data, they determined which individual had used which call and when.

By analyzing this data, researchers affirmed that dolphins exchange signature whistles when meeting at sea, and believe that these calls are meant to convey information about their identity (Figure 3). They also found that only one dolphin from each group uses its signature whistle before joining with another group, which could have various explanations:

• that each group has a leader who decides whether or not the groups will join,

• that the unique whistles are used as a greeting ritual and that the dolphins use echolocation to identify each other individually,

• that they may have recently been separated and already know the composition of the group, or

• that they aren't picky about which individuals they interact closely with.

...A histogram of all whistle exchanges and joining events for dolphin groups. (From Quick and Janik 2012)

While this study shed new light on the way dolphins use sound to communicate, it also opened up many more questions about how these organisms use signature whistles to interact, and what that means in terms of how humans define themselves.

...Quick, N., & Janik, V. ... Bottlenose dolphins exchange signature whistles when meeting at sea Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2537
... Read more »

  • March 29, 2012
  • 12:29 PM

Opportunistic Torpor Down Under

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Placental mammals, including some rodents and many bat species, enter torpor to conserve energy when ambient temperatures fall and food becomes scarce. Prolonged torpor is characterized by highly reduced body temperature and metabolic rates. Torpor is less common in mammals from the southern hemisphere. In fact, only one marsupial is known to undergo a seasonal hibernation, the mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus).

Now, James Turner and his colleagues from the University of New England in Australia report that seasonal torpor may be more common in marsupials than previously thought. They studied wild western pygmy-possums (Cercartetus concinnus), a small marsupial closely related to the mountain pygymy possum. These small possums (Figure 1) live in cooler temperate forests and semi-arid areas of southern Australia. By using implanted radio transmitters capable of measuring the animal’s body temperature, the research team was able to track the location and body temperature of seven possums over two winters.

...A photo of a closely related eastern pygmy-possum (Cercatetus nanus).

...These tiny marsupials used some form of torpor over 60% of the days in winter. Western pygmy-possums used both short duration torpor lasting less than 24 hours interspersed with longer torpor bouts lasting over 24 hours (Figure 2). Interestingly, on any given winter day some individuals exhibited short torpor bouts while others showed prolonged torpor (Figure 3). Such highly flexible torpor patterns are uncommon in mammals. These marsupials are nocturnal and entered short torpor bouts just before dawn. Individuals that entered longer duration bouts entered into torpor just after sunset and stayed in torpor for up to 186 hours.

...A plot of the body temperature (closed circles and black line) and ambient temperature (grey line) of two western pygmy-possums over a 6-week period. Short torpor bouts are illustrated by animal CcQ (top). Longer duration torpor was used by animal CcT (middle), with one section enlarged (bottom) to reveal a bout lasting over 7 days.

...The dashed line indicates the division between short (24 h) torpor bouts.

...The authors suggest that pygmy-possums may have “employed short torpor bouts as a response to a negative energy balance accrued while active during the previous night, whereas prolonged torpor was entered into on evenings where cold Ta indicated that activity might be too energetically expensive”.

Southern Australian winters are relatively mild and usually allow pygmy-possums to forage on warmer days. When temperatures drop for a day or more, the possums conserve energy by entering torpor and re-warm when ambient temperatures rise again.

...Turner, J., Warnecke, L., Körtner, G., & Geiser, F. ... Opportunistic hibernation by a free-ranging marsupial Journal of Zoology DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00877.x
... Read more »

Turner, J., Warnecke, L., Körtner, G., & Geiser, F. (2011) Opportunistic hibernation by a free-ranging marsupial. Journal of Zoology. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00877.x  

  • March 8, 2012
  • 09:29 AM

Right Whales Stressed by Shipping Traffic

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

The destruction of the World Trade Towers by terrorists on September 11th 2001 was just such an event. It goes without saying that there were many consequences for humans, including two wars, increased airline screening, and shifts in the political landscape. But there were also consequences for other mammalian species as well.

Endangered North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) gather during the late summer on calving grounds in the Bay of Fundy, Canada (Figure 1). A substantial portion of the calving grounds lies in an important shipping lane. Low frequency noise produced by ship engines and propellers travels long distances in water and is believed to interfere with acoustic signaling by whales. Previous studies have shown that right whales alter their vocalizations in response to increased underwater noise.

...A map of the Bay of Fundy, Canada showing the Right Whale Conservation Area and the shipping lanes.

...Rosalind Rolland from the New England Aquarium in Boston, and seven colleagues from across the United States, were collecting data on social behavior in right whales in the Bay of Fundy in August and September 2001. When shipping traffic ceased following the events of September 11th, it presented the researchers with an unintended natural experiment. They realized that they had data that could test the hypothesis that shipping noise directly altered the behavior of North Atlantic right whales.

The researchers collected acoustic data, shipping traffic data, and fecal samples for right whales. The later were used to measure stress hormones (glucocorticoids) produced by the whales. Their results reveal a significant drop in low-frequency background noise in the days immediately following September 11th when shipping traffic stopped in the Bay of Fundy (Figure 2).

...Power spectrum of underwater background noise from 2 days before and 2 days after 11 September 2001. There is a significant decline in low-frequency (Rolland, R., Parks, S., Hunt, K., Castellote, M., Corkeron, P., Nowacek, D., Wasser, S., & Kraus, S. ... Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2429
... Read more »

Rolland, R., Parks, S., Hunt, K., Castellote, M., Corkeron, P., Nowacek, D., Wasser, S., & Kraus, S. (2012) Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2429  

  • March 1, 2012
  • 09:40 AM

Tarsiers -- Communication in the Ultrasound

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

By contributing writer Sarah Buckleitner

It is difficult for humans to imagine that a world of color and sound exists outside of the one that we can perceive, but for some organisms that world is a reality. Usually these animals aren't ones that we can readily relate to; bats and dolphins are two examples that both possess the ability to hear and emit high-frequency sounds. And so the discovery that a fellow primate, the Philippine tarsier (Tarsius syrichta), may have the ability to emit sounds up to 91 kHz comes as a surprise to their human relatives who can hear sounds up to 20 kHz.

...A Philippine tarsier (Tarsius syrichta). (From Ramsier et al., 2012)

The possibility that tarsiers may be able to communicate in the pure ultrasound, is exciting--species that do this are rare, and the ability to communicate in such high frequencies could have a number of advantages.

Gathering scientific proof of these abilities was difficult; tarsiers are a threatened species and difficult to maintain in captivity. In order to have the least amount of impact, researchers captured the tarsiers in mist nets and brought them to a sound-attenuating chamber. They then used the auditory brainstem response method along with various software programs in order to test whether tarsiers could hear ultrasonic sounds.

When analyzing the sounds that tarsiers make to see if they occurred in the pure ultrasound, researchers recorded wild tarsiers on the islands of Bohol and Leyte with a special recording unit. Even while recording, it was clear that the tarsiers were utilizing pure ultrasound for communication (Figure 2); they frequently made sounds that the researchers could not hear, and were also recorded making calls in the pure ultrasound during human handling and in enclosures.

...A sound spectrogram of a tarsier vocalization showing the dominant frequency in the ultrasound range at roughly 70 kHz. (From Ramsier et al., 2012)

Sensitivity tests showed that Tarsius syrichta's high-frequency limit was approximately 91 kHz. Researchers were also successful in recording calls in the pure ultrasound (at around 70kHz) from eight different individuals. These calls are similar to other tarsier species, but those were all found to be below 34 kHz, and also included tones in less than 20 kHz.

It is thought that the ability to perceive and make ultrasonic sounds is beneficial to the tarsiers. They serve as sort of private channels on which individuals can communicate without attracting the attention of predators or giving away their location to prey. It is also thought that they make it easier for tarsiers to pick signals out of background noise, and that such sounds are energetically more efficient. Improved hearing may also be used to help tarsiers hunt at night; their eyes lack the tapetum lucidum (found in the retina) that allows most nocturnal predators to see effectively.

Through additional research, the researchers hope to more fully flesh out the advantage that ultrasonic communication provides for tarsiers.

...Ramsier, M., Cunningham, A., Moritz, G., Finneran, J., Williams, C., Ong, P., Gursky-Doyen, S., & Dominy, N. ... Primate communication in the pure ultrasound Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1149
... Read more »

Ramsier, M., Cunningham, A., Moritz, G., Finneran, J., Williams, C., Ong, P., Gursky-Doyen, S., & Dominy, N. (2012) Primate communication in the pure ultrasound. Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1149  

  • February 23, 2012
  • 10:44 AM

No Refueling Stopovers for Migrating Bats

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Migratory birds make refueling stops at one or more locations along their route. These stopover sites are critical; they provide food rich environments where birds can rapidly regain depleted fat stores before continuing their long treks. Likewise, several species of North American vespertilionid bats make long, north-south migrations each year. Silver-haired bats (Lasionycteris noctivagans) are a case in point. ... Previous research suggested that silver-haired bats make stopovers before attempting to cross Lake Erie. Are these stopovers used for refueling before the next stage of the journey?

To answer this question, a team of Canadian scientists lead by Liam McGuire captured 79 silver-haired bats at their stopover site at Long Point Ontario on the northern shore of Lake Erie. The researchers capture newly arrived bats, measured their body fat composition using quantitative magnetic resonance scanning, and fitted 30 of the bats with tiny radio transmitters (Figure 1).

...A roosting silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans) with a tiny Lotek radio transmitter glued to its back.

...A series of radio towers (Figure 2) allowed the researchers to track the movements of the radio-tagged bats prior to their departure. The majority of bats were captured at dawn suggesting that they had just arrive at Long Point after flying all night from regions further to the north. The radio-tagged bats roosted in trees or on man-made structures during the day. While some tagged bats spent the following night foraging, most departed the night following their capture. Seven bats stayed two days, but rain the following night prevented departure for six of those bats (the bats prefer not to travel on rainy nights). The short stopover duration suggests that refueling was not the primary reason for stopping. Because these bats do not migrate during the day, it is likely that the stopover is more a temporary refuge allowing the bats to roost and enter torpor during the day.

...Additionally, when the bats departed Long Point, half headed straight across Lake Erie (a minimum distance of 38 km at Long Point).

...The body composition analysis was used to simulate migration characteristics for this species. Assuming a fight speed of 9 meters per second, the bats cover roughly 250 to 300 km per night. At this rate, the bats would arrive at their southern range in 5 to 6 nights. Interestingly, silver-haired bats arrive at Long Point with roughly 19% body fat, plenty of fuel to complete their migration without refueling. Thus, migrating bats appear to use daily torpor to conserve energy and therefore do not need to refuel during stopovers – a strategy very different from many migrating birds.

...McGuire, L., Guglielmo, C., Mackenzie, S., & Taylor, P. ... Migratory stopover in the long-distance migrant silver-haired bat, Lasionycteris noctivagans Journal of Animal Ecology, 81 (2), 377-385 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2011.01912.x
... Read more »

  • February 9, 2012
  • 10:53 AM

When Did Cetaceans Evolve Echolocation?

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Modern whales include baleen whales (Mysticeti) and toothed whales (Odontoceti). Baleen whales are large, filter feeding whales that do not echolocate. Odontocete whales tend to be smaller in size, predatory, and are capable of producing high-frequency sounds used in echolocation. In addition, modern odonotcetes have an asymmetrical skull, where the bones of the skull roof extend posteriorly (telescoped) and are shifted to the left side of the skull (asymmetry) (Figure 1). This pronounced asymmetry is linked with the production of high frequency sounds and the reception of the returning echoes.

...Dorsal view of the skull of a bottlenosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) showing the posterior position of the nasals, frontals, maxilla, and premaxilla bones (telescoping) and the asymmetry of the bones surrounding the blow hole. (copyright Jim Ryan)

Modern mysticete and odontocete whales both arose from Eocene archaeocete whales. The skulls of archaeocete whales were presumed to by symmetrical. ... Julia Fahlke, working with Philip Gingerich, Robert Welsh, and Aaron Wood report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that some archaeocete skulls show distinct asymmetry without telescoping (Figure 2).

...A graph of the mean deviation of the dorsal midline suture for 24 artiodactyl skulls (top row), which show a high degree of symmetry, compared with 6 archaeocete whale skulls (bottom, two protocetids and four basilosaurids). All six archaeocete species show asymmetry to the same side of the skull. (From Fahlke et al., 2012).

The researchers propose that Eocene archaeocetes evolved cranial asymmetry “as part of a complex of traits linked to directional hearing.” Some of the other traits associated with hearing high frequency sounds include the thinning of the pan-bone of the lower jaws (Figure 3), and isolation of the ear region from the rest of the skull.

...Dentary bones of a late Eocene archaeocete whale (Basilosaurus isis) showing the relative bone thickness. The thinnest region represents the location of the pan bone. (From Fahlke et al., 2012)

The authors propose the following sequence of events: 1) Eocene archaeocete whales evolved modest cranial asymmetry along with a change to more directional hearing of high frequency sounds. They also evolved thinner pan bones in the jaw to aid the reception of water borne sounds. 2) Later on, Oligocene odontocete whales evolved more refined high frequency echolocation, which further shifted the cranial roofing bones posteriorly (telescoping) and to the left side of the skull (asymmetry). 3) At the same time, Oligocene mysticete whales lost the skull asymmetry of their archaeocete ancestors as their skulls became modified for a bulk filter-feeding mode with low-frequency hearing. Thus, cranial asymmetry is probably an ancestral condition in whales.

...Fahlke, J., Gingerich, P., Welsh, R., & Wood, A. ... Cranial asymmetry in Eocene archaeocete whales and the evolution of directional hearing in water Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (35), 14545-14548 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1108927108
... Read more »

  • February 2, 2012
  • 10:59 AM

Why Does a Blind, Fossorial Mammal Have Iridescent Fur?

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Golden moles (Chrysochloridae) are members of the mammalian Order Afrosoricida, an African group that also includes then tenrecs of Madagascar. Golden moles and true moles (Talpidae) evolved their fossorial habits independently. ... Scientists working with golden moles noticed that their silky fur often appears slightly iridescent (Figure 1).

...A Grant’s golden mole (Eremitalpa granti) showing it’s silky fur and leathery nose patch.

...Iridescence is common among insect and bird species, but has not been described before in mammals. Iridescence occurs when light is scattered by nanoscale ridges that are repeated over the surface of a structure such as a bird’s feather or a beetle’s carapace. In doing so, the structure appears to change in hue as the angle of view or angle of light changes.

Recently, a group of scientists reported in the journal Biology Letters (2012) that golden moles have iridescent fur (Figure 2).

...SEM images of iridescent and non-iridescent hairs from the golden mole species Chrysochloris asiatica, showing an iridescent (b) and non-iridescent hair (c) with an optical image (insert) of the cross section of a single hair. TEM images of a cross section of an iridescent (d) and non-iridescent hair (e), showing repeated dark and light bands in the cuticle.

...The fur of golden moles is sometimes described as having a greenish to purplish sheen. ... According to Snyder’s team (2012) golden moles have unusual hair structure that contributes to its weak iridescence. The hairs are flattened distally with extremely thin cuticular scales that make the hair surface appear almost smooth. Inside the hair cuticule, are repeated bands of light and dark, which resemble the wing cases of some iridescent beetles (Figure 3). Reflectance measurements suggest that the iridescent colors are produced when the multiple light-dark layers produce thin-film interference. This is enhanced by the fact that the hairs are flattened and have a relatively smooth reflective surface.

...Figure 3. (a) TEM image showing the alternating light and dark bands in the hair cuticule, and (b) optical modeling curves of reflectance for the golden mole Amblysomus hottentotus (solid line) and predicted (dashed line). (From Snyder et al., 2012)

Usually, animal coloration is the result of selection for camouflage or sexual ornamentation. Why would iridescent coloration evolve in a blind mammal that spends most of its life in darkness burrowing through the sand? Snyder and colleagues suggest that iridescent fur is an epiphenomenon; a by-product of evolution acting on some other aspect of the trait. They hypothesize that the smooth, flatten hairs with multiple layers evolved to reduce friction and damage as they burrow, and that the iridescence arises as a by-product of these mechanical functions.

...Snyder, H., Maia, R., D'Alba, L., Shultz, A., Rowe, K., Rowe, K., & Shawkey, M. ... Iridescent colour production in hairs of blind golden moles (Chrysochloridae) Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1168
... Read more »

Snyder, H., Maia, R., D'Alba, L., Shultz, A., Rowe, K., Rowe, K., & Shawkey, M. (2012) Iridescent colour production in hairs of blind golden moles (Chrysochloridae). Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1168  

  • January 19, 2012
  • 09:19 AM

Hibernation, Life in the Slow Lane

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Biologists are well aware of the trade offs between reproduction and survival for r versus K selected species. Theory predicts that r-selected species grow quickly, produce more offspring at a time, exhibit minimal parental care, and have relatively short lifespans. In contrast, K-selected organisms produce relatively few offspring at a time, have longer lifespans, and provide more parental care. Thus, these species tend to live in stable environments where they reproduce multiple times over their long lifespans and ensure relatively high offspring survival rates. Put simply, an organism can reproduce quickly, with large litters, and die early, or reproduce slowly over a longer lifespan.

This trade off between survival and reproduction is well understood for many mammals, but how do these life history strategies change in species that hibernate (Figure 1)? Three Austrian biologists, Christopher Turbill, Claudia Bieber, and Thomas Ruf (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of life history data for hibernating and non-hibernating mammals.

...Hibernation is typically understood to be an adaptation that saves energy in species that live year-round in highly seasonal climates. However, Turbill and colleagues suggest that there may be more to hibernation than just energetic savings. Hibernation also increases survival and is therefore likely to be associated with relatively slow life histories (Figure 2).

Figure 2. (a) Box plots of the monthly survival for adults estimated over the hibernation and active season for 19 hibernating mammal species. (b) Plot of the

annual survival probability of adult mammals as a function of body mass. Notice that survival probability is higher for hibernators (red symbols) compared to non-hibernators (blue symbols).

...Survival rates were higher during hibernation compared with the active season because hibernators were less available to predators. Interestingly, annual survival for hibernators was roughly 15 per cent longer than similar sized non-hibernating species. As predicted, when survival rates were higher, small hibernating mammals had longer maximum life spans, reproduced at a slower pace, matured later, and had longer generation times than non-hibernators of the same size.

However, when survival rate were similar for both hibernators and non-hibernators, life spans and reproductive rates were also similar (Figure 3). Put another way, “hibernators have a maximum life span matching the age expected from their relatively high rates of survival.”

Figure 3. (a) Plot of the annual survival probability and lifespan for hibernators (red) and non-hibernators (blue). (b) Plot of the annual reproductive output and maximum lifespan among hibernating and non-hibernating mammals. (From Turbill et al., 2011)

These results suggest that hibernation is associated with high rates of overwinter and annual survival, and this increase in survival is linked with the coevolution of slower life history. This is not to say that energetic savings are unimportant, but rather than increased survival rates may also be driving the evolution of more K-selected life history traits in hibernating mammals.

...Turbill, C., Bieber, C., & Ruf, T. ... Hibernation is associated with increased survival and the evolution of slow life histories among mammals Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278 (1723), 3355-3363 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0190
... Read more »

  • December 14, 2011
  • 09:53 AM

Out of Asia: The Origin of Dogs

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

Scientists agree that domestic dogs evolved from wolves (Canis lupus, Figure 1), but disagree on when and where that domestication event took place. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans domesticated wolves 10-15,000 years ago in Eastern Europe and/or the Middle East. This evidence is based on canid remains that look like domestic dogs found in association with human remains. In contrast, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data from a large sample of dogs from around the world point to Asia south of the Yangtze River as the center of domestication.

...Peter Savolainen from the KTH-Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden may have a more definitive answer. Using dog Y-chromosome DNA samples from 151 dogs from around the world, 12 wolves and 2 coyotes, the team believes that wolves were domesticated in Asia south of the Yangtze River (Figure 2). The genetic data also reveal that there were additional, but relatively minor, genetic contributions from wolves at other locations subsequent to the original domestication event, which indicated that dogs may have subsequently hybridized with wolves.

...Circles represent dog haplotypes, squares are wolf haplotyles and hexagons are coyote haplotypes (black dots are hypothetical intermediates). Circle size is proportional to the frequency of the haplotype among dogs. ... (B) Distribution map of dog Y chromosome haplotypes.

...The researchers found 28 haplotypes distributed in five haplogroups. Haplotypes are combinations of alleles at adjacent or nearby locations on a chromosome that are transmitted together. The Y chromosome is of particular interest here because unlike other chromosomes, the Y chromosome does not come in pairs. This means that unlike autosomal haplotypes, a male shares essentially the same Y chromosome as his father, making these haplotypes especially useful for tracing lineages.

The haplotype data reveal that roughly 50% of all dog gene pools are shared. Only in Asia south of the Yangtze River is the full range of genetic diversity apparent. This implies that dog gene pools from all other regions of the world likely derive from this region of East Asia. For example, if wolves were also domesticated independently in Europe or the Middle East one would expect to see high genetic diversity in dogs from those locations as well. Instead the genetic diversity was very low in Europe. As the authors state, ”this offers strong evidence that domestication of wolf occurred primarily and possibly exclusively,” in Asia south of the Yangtze River.

The Y chromosome data from the present study along with mtDNA from previous studies also suggest that a relatively large number of wolves, probably several dozen to several hundred, were domesticated. Such repeated domestication suggests that taming wolves was a cultural trait shared by human populations from this region.

...Ding, Z., Oskarsson, M., Ardalan, A., Angleby, H., Dahlgren, L., Tepeli, C., Kirkness, E., Savolainen, P., & Zhang, Y. ... Origins of domestic dog in Southern East Asia is supported by analysis of Y-chromosome DNA Heredity DOI: 10.1038/hdy.2011.114
... Read more »

Ding, Z., Oskarsson, M., Ardalan, A., Angleby, H., Dahlgren, L., Tepeli, C., Kirkness, E., Savolainen, P., & Zhang, Y. (2011) Origins of domestic dog in Southern East Asia is supported by analysis of Y-chromosome DNA. Heredity. DOI: 10.1038/hdy.2011.114  

  • November 29, 2011
  • 08:24 AM

Bat Radiations

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

A new study involving bat skulls, bite force measurements and scat samples collected by an international team of evolutionary biologists is helping to solve a nagging question of evolution: Why some groups of animals develop scores of different species over time while others evolve only a few. Their findings appear in the current issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

To answer this question, Elizabeth Dumont at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Liliana Dávalos of Stony Brook University together with colleagues at UCLA and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, compiled large amounts of data on the diet, bite force and skull shape in a family of New World bats (Figure 1), and took advantage of new statistical techniques to date and document changes in the rate of evolution of these traits and the number of species over time.

...Photos of the heads and skulls of three of a nectar-eating bat (left) an insect-eating bat (middle) and a fruit-eating bat (right). The fruit-eating bats have shorter skulls, which allow more forceful bites.

...They investigated why there are so many more species of New World Leaf-Nosed bats, nearly 200, while their closest relatives produced only 10 species over the same period of time. Most bats are insect feeders, while the New World Leaf-Nosed bats eat nectar, fruit, frogs, lizards and even blood.

One hypothesis is that the evolution of a trait, such as head shape, that gives access to new resources can lead to the rapid evolution of many new species. As Dumont and Dávalos explain, connecting changes in body structure to an ecological opportunity requires showing that a significant increase in the number of species occurred in tandem with the appearance of new anatomical traits, and that those traits are associated with enhanced resource use.

"If the availability of fruit provided the ecological opportunity that, in the presence of anatomical innovations that allowed eating the fruit, led to a significant increase in the birth of new species, then skull morphology should predict both diet and bite force" they said. They found support for these predictions by analyzing thousands of evolutionary trees of more than 150 species, measuring over 600 individual bat skulls of 85 species, testing bite force in over 500 individual bats from 39 species in the field and examining thousands of scat samples to identify the bats’ diets.

They found that the emergence of a new skull shape in New World Leaf-Nosed bats about 15 million years ago led to an explosion of many new bat species (Figure 2). The new shape was a low, broad skull that allowed even small bats to produce the strong bite needed to eat hard fruits. The rate of birth of new species jumped as this new shape evolved, and this group of bats quickly increased the proportion of fruit in their diet. Change in shape slowed once this new skull had evolved.

...A phylogeny of 150 species of phyllostomid bats illustrating morphological diversity among subfamilies. ... The red arrow indicates the node where the most rapid diversification rate was found. (From Dumont et al., 2011)

It can be difficult for evolutionary biologists to demonstrate that traits related to anatomical changes, also called "morphological innovations" such as a new skull shape, give certain groups a survival advantage when new food sources, such as hard fruits, become available.

"This study conducted during the International Year of the Bat offers a clear example of how the evolution of new traits, in this case a skull with a new shape, allowed animals to use new resources and eventually, to rapidly evolve into many new species," Dumont says. "We found that when a new ecological niche opened up with an opportunity for bats that could eat hard fruits, they shifted their diet significantly, which in turn led to the evolution of new species."”

Story Source: The above story is reprinted with slight modification from materials provided by University of Massachusetts at Amherst and authored by Janet Lathrop.

...Dumont, E., Davalos, L., Goldberg, A., Santana, S., Rex, K., & Voigt, C. ... Morphological innovation, diversification and invasion of a new adaptive zone Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2005
... Read more »

Dumont, E., Davalos, L., Goldberg, A., Santana, S., Rex, K., & Voigt, C. (2011) Morphological innovation, diversification and invasion of a new adaptive zone. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2005  

  • November 17, 2011
  • 08:29 AM

Female Moaning: How Female Moose Control Mating

by Jim Ryan in Wild Mammals

One of the key questions in sexual selection theory is how do females choose the best mate? Research has generally focused on the role of male-male competition for access to receptive females, with less attention paid to female mate choice. Theory predicts that females should choose to mate with the most fit male available. In sexually dimorphic mammals, females may use body size as a surrogate for fitness, and choose to mate with the largest or most dominant males.

Alaskan moose (Alces alces) exhibit a polygynous mating system, where dominant (larger) males called harem masters defend small groups of females from other males (Figure 1). Terry Bowyer at Idaho State university and his colleagues studied moose populations in Danali National Park, Alaska for many years. In a recent paper, they report how females manipulate male behavior in order to ensure they mate with the larger, more dominant males.

...A male moose (Alces alces) during the fall mating season in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (From Flickr/Fisherga)

Over the course of three years, the researchers studied group of moose, focusing on the behavior of females. They reveal that female Alaskan moose moan only during courtship attempts. The researchers hypothesized that these protest moans are attempts by females to prevent courtship attempts by subordinate males. They predicted that females should give protest moans more often when courted or harassed by smaller males than when courted by larger males. Furthermore, they predicted that the rate of male-male conflict would increase after protest moans as the harem master arrived and attempted to drive off the other male.

Female protest moans increased during the primary rut, which takes place in October in Danali. A second spike in protest moans occurred in early November during the secondary rut (Figure 2). That protest moans coincided with other rutting behaviors is strong evidence that these moans are rut-related.

...A graph of the rate of protest moans given by female Alaskan moose from August to November.

...As predicted females gave fewer protest moans when courted by larger males.

...The percentage of male aggressive and non-aggressive behaviors during 15-minute periods with or without female protest moans.

...These results indicate that female moose use protest moans to reduce courtship by smaller males. Moaning alerts the harem master, who drives off the smaller male and mates with the female, thereby assuring that the females mates with a dominant male. Such indirect mate choice, where females manipulate males into conflict is rarely reported in mammals, but may be more common than previously believed.

...Bowyer, R., Rachlow, J., Stewart, K., & Ballenberghe, V. ... Vocalizations by Alaskan moose: female incitation of male aggression Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 65 (12), 2251-2260 DOI: 10.1007/s00265-011-1234-y
... Read more »

Bowyer, R., Rachlow, J., Stewart, K., & Ballenberghe, V. (2011) Vocalizations by Alaskan moose: female incitation of male aggression. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 65(12), 2251-2260. DOI: 10.1007/s00265-011-1234-y  

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