Sometimes a species is so well studied it is hard to believe that there is anything new to discover about them. I’ve often felt this about badgers, the subject of my PhD research. Don’t get me wrong, I love badgers and they could never bore me. Ever. But there are just so many papers already written about every facet of their lives – their social structure, their ranging behaviour, their diet, their [really cool!] reproductive biology, and of course their role in the maintenance of bovine tuberculosis (TB), caused by Mycobacterium bovis infection. At this stage, what could we not know? But with advances in technology, come new discoveries!
Our latest paper in the journal PLOS ONE describes a brand new “super-ranging” behaviour in badgers, which was revealed through the long-term deployment of GPS satellite tracking collars on a population of badgers in County Wicklow, Ireland by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
Many linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists have discussed the concept of linguistic relativity: the relationship between the language a person speaks and the way that person thinks and views the world. As the primary language of the people of Ireland up until the 19th century, the Irish language (aka Gaeilge or sometimes Gaelic) is the repository of how people on this island thought and felt about the world around them for most of their recorded history. As part of this, Irish reflects the complex, colourful, and often idiosyncratic relationship that Irish people have had with the animals with which they share the island.
Names can show the people’s fondness for certain species, or they can highlight which aspects of an animal most stood out to them. For example, the ladybird, with its visually pleasing pattern of black spots on bright red elytra, has drawn the eyes of people all over the world and has an association with God or the Virgin Mary in many European languages, including both English and Irish. In Irish, it is known as Bóín Dé or “God’s little cow”, which is also the meaning of its Russian name, Божья коровка. Today, the ladybird’s bright, “bovine” pattern is seen as an example of aposematism, protecting the insect by signalling to potential predators that it contains bitter-tasting chemicals.
In 1980, Janzen published an article titled “When is it coevolution?” where he explained the concept of diffuse coevolution: the idea that evolution of interacting species is shaped by entire communities, rather than simple paired interactions. This idea, though compelling, remains poorly understood, and strong evidence of diffuse coevolution acting on a community is lacking. Perhaps this is because there’s a lack of consensus on what would constitute evidence in support of the concept of diffuse coevolution, or, indeed, coevolution in general (Nuismer et al 2010).
Large Communities of Generalized Interactors
Evaluating patterns of diffuse coevolution involves analysing communities of many species and many interactions. But, standard phylogenetic methods for testing coevolution fail when evaluating large communities of interacting species because
we often lack phylogenetic data for all the interacting species
traditional methods are designed to evaluate pairwise interactions, not generalist species with many interactions…”
Laura Russo is a Marie Curie fellow in Jane Stout’s lab at Trinity College Dublin. She studies mutualistic interactions between plants and insects, and between agriculture and conservation. Find out more about her research here:
At first glance, plants seem impressively independent. Unlike us, they can make their own food, through a process called photosynthesis which uses energy from sunlight. This is a pretty neat ability but, plants aren’t entirely self-sufficient. In order to grow and develop fully, they must get a sufficient supply of minerals from the soil – including a particularly important mineral: Nitrogen.
You might be deceived into thinking this is an easy task. Nitrogen does make up 78% of our atmosphere after all. However, plants can only assimilate nitrogen in the form of nitrate or ammonium, which means the nitrogen in our atmosphere first needs to be converted into one of these forms. This can be achieved naturally by bacteria and blue-green algae, but this doesn’t always meet the enormous nitrate demands for plants growing in dense quarters – say for example in a cropping system. This is where legumes come in! Legumes are a type of plant that has a symbiotic association – or a working relationship – with a class of bacteria called rhizobia. These rhizobia congregate in specialised areas called nodules in the legume’s roots. In these nodules, rhizobia love nothing better than to sit around all day and convert inert atmospheric nitrogen to nitrate which legumes and even neighbouring plants can readily absorb. Continue reading “Legumes: Giving Nitrogen Fixation A Leg Up”
As the year draws to a close, we thought we’d reflect on a some of our favourite scientific papers from 2017. There were only five entrants this year, but representing a broad range of work from across ecology and evolution, as chosen by PhD students and postdoctoral researchers from the School of Natural Sciences. So, without further ado, here are the papers from 2017 being entered into the EcoEvo hall of fame:
Carlson CJ, Burgio KR, Dougherty ER, Phillips AJ, Bueno VM, Clements CF, Castaldo G, Dallas TA, et al. (2017). Parasite biodiversity faces extinction and redistribution in a changing climate. Science Advances3, e1602422.
“This paper got a lot of press this year as it is essentially the poster paper for the parasite conservation movement. The authors suggest that within the next 100 years, 5% to 10% of parasitic species may go extinct based on habitat loss alone and up to 24% of species are predicted to go extinct based on co-extinction with hosts. Thankfully, Acanthocephala (my study organisms) are predicted to fare well enough in the next 100 years, but it was an eye-opening analysis that provides important information to the parasite conservation cause.” Maureen Williams. Continue reading “The 2017 EcoEvo hall of fame”
Cakes and baking have always been running themes in the Botany Department here at TCD. This year, members of the Department have turned things up a notch for the second ever Botany Bake off! The rules were simple; bake something that represents your research or work in the department. The stakes don’t get higher than this…
This cake represents the research of Prof. Jennifer McElwain using fossil leaves to reconstruct the evolution of the earth’s atmospheric composition and climate over millions of years. The leaves around the edge are of the Ginkgo tree. The pattern on the cake top shows what these leaves look like under a microscope. The ‘molecules’ on top of the cake represent the CO2 and H2O in the atmosphere around the plant leaves.
When you live in Ireland, it’s easy to forget that a good proportion of the world’s ecosystems regularly burn. In many regions, plants and animals have evolved to tolerate or even rely on fire. My recent paper investigates the factors that drive the success of an Australian gecko after fire. I found that the geckos were healthier after fires because of the availability of lots of prey, showing that these feeding relationships matter for a species that thrives after its forest burns.
Important word alert: succession = the sequence of changes in the physical structure and composition of plant and/or animal species in an ecosystem after disturbance.
In flammable ecosystems, natural cycles of fire and succession mean that habitats are complex, ever-changing systems.
But as we go through global changes in land use and climate, the effect of fire on ecosystems is being transformed. In some areas, fires are becoming more frequent and intense, while in other places, fire suppression by humans has removed this important process from the environment. Even in Ireland, wildfires of unprecedented size have occurred in recent years because of changing land management practices and a drier climate (I know, this last point is hard to believe some days!). Continue reading “What happens to animals when their habitat burns?”
Secret Vatican archives, xenophobia, de-extinction, parasitism and hoovers were just a few of the many topics on the menu at the 2017 School of Natural Sciences Lightning Talks. This annual event brought together 24 PhD students and Professors from across the Botany, Geography, Geology and Zoology disciplines to present their research and battle it out to win the respect of their colleagues (and bragging rights). The catch? Presentations were limited to 120 seconds, a difficult feat considering how much scientists like to talk about their own work!
The Zoology department was out in full force, with seven presentations and four prizes. For her work on parasites in freshwater systems, Maureen Williams was awarded the third prize. For telling us if invasive fish have parasites and which parasites those are, Paula Tierney was awarded the Nature+ prize. For bringing us on a biogeographical journey through speciation, Fionn Ó Marcaigh was given an honourable mention. Finally, for my own research looking at how to prioritise species for cryogenic storage in ‘frozen zoos,’ I was awarded the first prize on the night.
Frozen zoos are large reservoirs of cryogenically frozen and stored genetic material from numerous species. The largest frozen zoo in the world is kept within San Diego Zoo and houses more than 10,000 cell cultures, representing more than 1,000 species and subspecies. Although this is a substantial resource and many rare (and even extinct!) species are present in the collection, the way in which samples have been collected to date has been opportunistic and lacking a comprehensive plan or goal. As a result, we are likely missing key opportunities to collect samples from species which are on the brink of extinction or have already gone extinct. Continue reading “Lightning Strikes at TCD”
“A recent study led by myself and Dr. Nick Friedman asks whether we can accurately measure how diverse different ecosystems are on the island of Okinawa, Japan. We set up 24 monitoring sites across the island in different locations – in forests, grassland, mangroves, near the beach and in the city – to monitor all the sounds that are produced near each site. We found that we can detect individual species and relate these sounds to natural patterns including the ‘dawn chorus,’ and we could identify sites with heavy human activity. All without having to look for any species.
The rise of bioacoustics
Technology is advancing worldwide. Everything from phones to microwaves is getting more advanced. Instruments for ecological research are no different. Our satellite tracking tags are improving; they’re getting lighter, cheaper and can store more data than ever before. We can use complex chemical techniques to understand who eats whom in a food web, and drones now allow us to image even remote habitats with relative ease. With these advances comes the rise of acoustic monitoring techniques for biological signals (bioacoustics for short)…”
Sam Ross is a PhD student in Ian Donohue’s research group in the Department of Zoology, Trinity College Dublin. His research focuses on the effects of global change on ecological stability. Find out more about his research here:
EcoEvo@TCD is getting a new look – one focused around the work we do here in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. To get a broad picture of what goes on here at Trinity, we’ve put together some photos that represent a range of research and teaching activities from across the school. Check out the full gallery below:
View from the Swiss Alps near the Swiss-French border around Lake Geneva. This photo looks out of the valley from the town of L’Etivaz, where we were staying during fieldwork in June 2017.
Alain Finn is a research assistant in Yvonne Buckley’s research group. Find out more about his work on Twitter | @finchyIrl
A bird is released on Kabaena Island, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, after having its measurements taken as part of a biogeographical study of the region. Photo credit: Emma Shalvey.
Fionn Ó Marcaigh is a PhD student in Nicola Marples’ research group. Find out more about his work here.
Prof. Yvonne Buckley botanizing in the Burren (alliteration intentional). Photo by Dr. Laura Russo.