Scales, Slime and Dragon(fly) Wings? Investigating the Surfaces of Organisms

Post provided by Dylan Wainwright

Our recent Methods in Ecology and Evolution paper – ‘Imaging biological surface topography in situ and in vivo shows how to use gel-based profilometry to image various biological surfaces. To start you need to press a gel into a surface of interest. The bottom surface of the gel is coated in a paint to create an impression of the surface that has standard optical properties (not clear, shiny, or coloured). Then lights are shone on the gel at different angles and photographs are taken at six different lighting angles. These photographs allow us to study the surface in incredible detail. The following images give more information on how we can do this and the benefits of it.

To find out more, read our Methods in Ecology and Evolution article ‘Imaging biological surface topography in situ and in vivo’. And to find out more about Dylan’s research, visit his website.

Advertisements

How Can We Quantify the Strength of Migratory Connectivity?

Technological advancements in the past 20 years or so have spurred rapid growth in the study of migratory connectivity (the linkage of individuals and populations between seasons of the annual cycle). A new article in Methods in Ecology and Evolution provides methods to help make quantitative comparisons of migratory connectivity across studies, data types, and taxa to better understand the causes and consequences of the seasonal distributions of populations.

In a new video, Emily Cohen, Jeffrey Hostetler and Michael Hallworth explain what migratory connectivity is and how the methods in their new article – ‘Quantifying the strength of migratory connectivity‘ – can help you to study it. They also introduce and give a quick tutorial on their new R package MigConnectivity.

This video is based on the article ‘Quantifying the strength of migratory connectivity by Cohen et al.

Improved and Harmless Demethylation Method for Ecological Epigenetic Experiments

In a new Methods in Ecology and Evolution video, Javier Puy outlines a new method of experimental plant DNA demethylation for ecological epigenetic experiments. While the traditionally-used approach causes underdeveloped root systems and high mortality of treated plants, this new one overcomes the unwanted effects while maintaining the demethylation efficiency. The authors demonstrate its application for ecological epigenetic experiments: testing transgenerational effects of plant–plant competition.

This novel method could be better suited for experimental studies seeking valuable insights into ecological epigenetics. As it’s based on periodical spraying of azacytidine on established plants, it’s suitable for clonal species reproducing asexually, and it opens the possibility of community-level experimental demethylation of plants.

This video is based on the article ‘Improved demethylation in ecological epigenetic experiments: Testing a simple and harmless foliar demethylation application by Puy et al.

Animal Behaviour through a Virtual Lens

Motion vision is an important source of information for many animals. It facilitates an animal’s movement through an environment, as well as being essential for locating prey and detecting predators. However, information on the conditions for motion vision in natural environments is limited.

To address this, Bian et al. have developed an innovative approach that combines novel field techniques with tools from 3D animation to determine how habitat structure, weather and motion vision influence animal behaviour. Their project focuses on Australia’s charismatic dragon lizards, and will place the animals’ motion displays in a visual-ecological context. The application of this approach goes well beyond this topic and the authors suggest the motion graphic technologies is a valuable tool for investigating the visual ecology of animals in a range of environments and at different spatial and temporal scales.

This video is based on the article ‘Integrating evolutionary biology with digital arts to quantify ecological constraints on vision-based behaviour by Bian et al.

Sticking Together or Drifting Apart? Quantifying the Strength of Migratory Connectivity

Post provided by Emily Cohen

Red Knot migratory connectivity is studied with tracking technologies and color band resighting. © Tim Romano

Red Knot migratory connectivity is studied with tracking technologies and colour band resighting. © Tim Romano

The seasonal long-distance migration of all kinds of animals – from whales to dragonflies to amphibians to birds – is as astonishing a feat as it is mysterious and this is an especially exciting time to study migratory animals. In the past 20 years, rapidly advancing technologies  – from tracking devices, to stable isotopes in tissues, to genomics and analytical techniques for the analysis of ring re-encounter databases – mean that it’s now possible to follow many animals throughout the year and solve many of the mysteries of migration.

What is Migratory Connectivity?

One of the many important things we’re now able to measure is migratory connectivity, the connections of migratory individuals and populations between seasons. There are really two components of migratory connectivity:

  1. Linking the geography of where individuals and populations occur between seasons.
  2. The extent, or strength, of co-occurrence of individuals and populations between seasons.

Continue reading

The Power of Infinity: Using 3D Fractal Geometry to Study Irregular Organisms

Post provided by Jessica Reichert, André R. Backes, Patrick Schubert and Thomas Wilke

The Problem with the Shape

More than anything else, the phenotype of an organism determines how it interacts with the environment. It’s subject to natural selection, and may help to unravel the underlying evolutionary processes. So shape traits are key elements in many ecological and biological studies.

The growth form of corals is highly variable. ©Jessica Reichert

The growth form of corals is highly variable. ©Jessica Reichert

Commonly, basic parameters like distances, areas, angles, or derived ratios are used to describe and compare the shapes of organisms. These parameters usually work well in organisms with a regular body plan. The shape of irregular organisms – such as many plants, fungi, sponges or corals – is mainly determined by environmental factors and often lacks the distinct landmarks needed for traditional morphometric methods. The application of these methods is problematic and shapes are more often categorised than actually measured.

As scientists though, we favour independent statistical analyses, and there’s an urgent need for reliable shape characterisation based on numerical approaches. So, scientists often determine complexity parameters such as surface/volume ratios, rugosity, or the level of branching. However, these parameters all share the same drawback: they are delineated to a univariate number, taking information from one or few spatial scales and because of this essential information is lost. Continue reading

Animation Meets Biology: Shedding New Light on Animal Behaviour

Below is a press release about the Methods paper ‘Integrating evolutionary biology with digital arts to quantify ecological constraints on vision-based behaviour‘ taken from the La Trobe University.

Ctenophorus fionni (Peninsula Dragon), male push up display - Copyright Jose Ramos, La Trobe University

Ctenophorus fionni (Peninsula Dragon), male push up display. © Jose Ramos, La Trobe University

Many animals rely on movement to find prey and avoid predators. Movement is also an essential component of the territorial displays of lizards, comprising tail, limb, head and whole-body movements.

For the first time, digital animation has been used as a research tool to examine how the effectiveness of a lizard’s territorial display varies across ecological environments and conditions. The new research was published today in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

A team from La Trobe University’s School of Life Sciences, led by Dr Richard Peters, worked with academics from Monash University’s Faculty of IT to create, using 3D animation, a series of varied environmental settings and weather conditions, comprising different plant environments and wind conditions, to quantify how lizard displays are affected by this variation. Continue reading

Microbial Methods Virtual Issue

The BES Microbial Ecology Special Interest Group is running a workshop today (Thursday 2 November) on Novel Tools for Microbial Ecology. To compliment this workshop, Xavier Harrison has edited a Virtual Issue of the best Methods in Ecology and Evolution articles on advances in methods of studying microbial evolution and ecology from the past few years.

Advances in Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology now allow us to study associations between hosts and their microbial communities in unprecedented detail. However, studies investigating host-microbe interactions in the field of ecology and evolution are dominated by 16S and ITS amplicon sequencing. While amplicon sequencing is a useful tool for describing microbial community composition, it is limited in its ability to quantify the function(s) performed by members of those communities. Characterising function is vital to understanding how microbes and their hosts interact, and consequently whether those interactions are adaptive for, or detrimental to, the host. The articles in this Virtual Issue cover a broad suite of approaches that allow us to study host-microbe and microbe-microbe interactions in novel ways.

All of the articles in the Microbial Methods Virtual Issue will be freely available for the next two months. You can find out a little more about each one below. Continue reading

Midwater Ocean Communities: Sounds Like Siphonophore Soup

Post provided by Roland Proud

How do we know how many fish there are in the ocean? 1000, 1 billion, 1000 billion? We can’t catch them all and count – that’s not practical. Nor can we make observations from Earth-orbiting satellites – light does not penetrate far into the ocean. What we can use is sound.

Sound travels well in water (faster and further than it does in air), so we can use scientific SONAR (echosounders) to produce sound waves and record backscatter from organisms and communities. This provides information concerning their biomass, distribution and behaviour. A recent study used echoes from the mesopelagic zone (200 – 1,000m) to predict global mesopelagic fish biomass to be between 11 and 15 billion tonnes (that’s a lot), suggesting that mesopelagic fish communities could potentially provide global food security.

Mesopelagic Biogeography

In a recent paper, we (the Pelagic Ecology Research Group, PERG at the University of St Andrews) divided the global ocean up into regions based on the properties of echoes from the mesopelagic zone (see below).

10 mesopelagic classes are shown for the open-ocean, echo intensity (a proxy for biomass) increases from blue to red. Coastal zones excluded. Longhurst provinces overlaid. Shapefile here. Proud et al. (2017)

10 mesopelagic classes are shown for the open-ocean, echo intensity (a proxy for biomass) increases from blue to red. Coastal zones excluded. Longhurst provinces overlaid. Shapefile here. Proud et al. (2017)

Continue reading

Phylogenies, Trait Evolution and Fancy Glasses

Post provided by Daniel S. Caetano

Phylogenetic trees represent the evolutionary relationships among different lineages. These trees give us two crucial pieces of information:

  1. the relationships between lineages (which we can tell from the pattern of the branches (i.e., topology))
  2. the point when lineages separated from a common ancestor (which we can tell from the length of the branches, when estimated from genetic sequences and fossils).
Phylogeny of insects inferred from genetic sequences showing the time of divergence between ants and bees.

Phylogeny of insects inferred from genetic sequences showing the time of divergence between ants and bees.

As systematic biologists, we are interested in the evolutionary history of life. We use phylogenetic trees to uncover the past, understand the present, and predict the future of biodiversity on the planet. Among the tools for this thrilling job are the comparative methods, a broad set of statistical tools built to help us understand and interpret the tree of life.

Here’s a Tree, Now Tell Me Something

The comparative methods we use to study the evolution of traits are mainly based on the idea that since species share a common evolutionary history, the traits observed on these lineages will share this same history. In the light of phylogenetics, we can always make a good bet about how a species will look if we know how closely related it is to another species or group. Comparative models aim to quantify the likelihood of our bet being right and use the same principle to estimate how fast evolutionary changes accumulate over time. Continue reading