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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 9 new articles in PLoS ONE today and all nine are amazing and quite bloggable (hint, hint).

As always, you should rate the articles, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about the papers. Here are my own picks for the week – you go and look for your own favourites:

The Fastest Flights in Nature: High-Speed Spore Discharge Mechanisms among Fungi:

A variety of spore discharge processes have evolved among the fungi. Those with the longest ranges are powered by hydrostatic pressure and include “squirt guns” that are most common in the Ascomycota and Zygomycota. In these fungi, fluid-filled stalks that support single spores or spore-filled sporangia, or cells called asci that contain multiple spores, are pressurized by osmosis. Because spores are discharged at such high speeds, most of the information on launch processes from previous studies has been inferred from mathematical models and is subject to a number of errors. In this study, we have used ultra-high-speed video cameras running at maximum frame rates of 250,000 fps to analyze the entire launch process in four species of fungi that grow on the dung of herbivores. For the first time we have direct measurements of launch speeds and empirical estimates of acceleration in these fungi. Launch speeds ranged from 2 to 25 m s−1 and corresponding accelerations of 20,000 to 180,000 g propelled spores over distances of up to 2.5 meters. In addition, quantitative spectroscopic methods were used to identify the organic and inorganic osmolytes responsible for generating the turgor pressures that drive spore discharge. The new video data allowed us to test different models for the effect of viscous drag and identify errors in the previous approaches to modeling spore motion. The spectroscopic data show that high speed spore discharge mechanisms in fungi are powered by the same levels of turgor pressure that are characteristic of fungal hyphae and do not require any special mechanisms of osmolyte accumulation.

Watch the accompanying movie – it is astonishing!

Also see Carl Zimmer’s take on the paper. And re-visit my old post on the topic.

Female-Biased Dispersal and Gene Flow in a Behaviorally Monogamous Mammal, the Large Treeshrew (Tupaia tana):

Female-biased dispersal (FBD) is predicted to occur in monogamous species due to local resource competition among females, but evidence for this association in mammals is scarce. The predicted relationship between FBD and monogamy may also be too simplistic, given that many pair-living mammals exhibit substantial extra-pair paternity. I examined whether dispersal and gene flow are female-biased in the large treeshrew (Tupaia tana) in Borneo, a behaviorally monogamous species with a genetic mating system characterized by high rates (50%) of extra-pair paternity. Genetic analyses provided evidence of FBD in this species. As predicted for FBD, I found lower mean values for the corrected assignment index for adult females than for males using seven microsatellite loci, indicating that female individuals were more likely to be immigrants. Adult female pairs were also less related than adult male pairs. Furthermore, comparison of Bayesian coalescent-based estimates of migration rates using maternally and bi-parentally inherited genetic markers suggested that gene flow is female-biased in T. tana. The effective number of migrants between populations estimated from mitochondrial DNA sequence was three times higher than the number estimated using autosomal microsatellites. These results provide the first evidence of FBD in a behaviorally monogamous species without mating fidelity. I argue that competition among females for feeding territories creates a sexual asymmetry in the costs and benefits of dispersal in treeshrews.

Population and Individual Elephant Response to a Catastrophic Fire in Pilanesberg National Park:

In predator-free large herbivore populations, where density-dependent feedbacks occur at the limit where forage resources can no longer support the population, environmental catastrophes may play a significant role in population regulation. The potential role of fire as a stochastic mass-mortality event limiting these populations is poorly understood, so too the behavioural and physiological responses of the affected animals to this type of large disturbance event. During September 2005, a wildfire resulted in mortality of 29 (18% population mortality) and injury to 18, African elephants in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa. We examined movement and herd association patterns of six GPS-collared breeding herds, and evaluated population physiological response through faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (stress) levels. We investigated population size, structure and projected growth rates using a simulation model. After an initial flight response post-fire, severely injured breeding herds reduced daily displacement with increased daily variability, reduced home range size, spent more time in non-tourist areas and associated less with other herds. Uninjured, or less severely injured, breeding herds also shifted into non-tourist areas post-fire, but in contrast, increased displacement rate (both mean and variability), did not adjust home range size and formed larger herds post-fire. Adult cow stress hormone levels increased significantly post-fire, whereas juvenile and adult bull stress levels did not change significantly. Most mortality occurred to the juvenile age class causing a change in post-fire population age structure. Projected population growth rate remained unchanged at 6.5% p.a., and at current fecundity levels, the population would reach its previous level three to four years post-fire. The natural mortality patterns seen in elephant populations during stochastic events, such as droughts, follows that of the classic mortality pattern seen in predator-free large ungulate populations, i.e. mainly involving juveniles. Fire therefore functions in a similar manner to other environmental catastrophes and may be a natural mechanism contributing to population limitation. Welfare concerns of arson fires, burning during “hot-fire” conditions and the conservation implications of fire suppression (i.e. removal of a potential contributing factor to natural population regulation) should be integrated into fire management strategies for conservation areas.

Selective Breeding for a Behavioral Trait Changes Digit Ratio:

The ratio of the length of the second digit (index finger) divided by the fourth digit (ring finger) tends to be lower in men than in women. This 2D:4D digit ratio is often used as a proxy for prenatal androgen exposure in studies of human health and behavior. For example, 2D:4D ratio is lower (i.e. more “masculinized”) in both men and women of greater physical fitness and/or sporting ability. Lab mice have also shown variation in 2D:4D as a function of uterine environment, and mouse digit ratios seem also to correlate with behavioral traits, including daily activity levels. Selective breeding for increased rates of voluntary exercise (wheel running) in four lines of mice has caused correlated increases in aerobic exercise capacity, circulating corticosterone level, and predatory aggression. Here, we show that this selection regime has also increased 2D:4D. This apparent “feminization” in mice is opposite to the relationship seen between 2D:4D and physical fitness in human beings. The present results are difficult to reconcile with the notion that 2D:4D is an effective proxy for prenatal androgen exposure; instead, it may more accurately reflect effects of glucocorticoids, or other factors that regulate any of many genes.

Updated Three-Stage Model for the Peopling of the Americas:

We re-assess support for our three stage model for the peopling of the Americas in light of a recent report that identified nine non-Native American mitochondrial genome sequences that should not have been included in our initial analysis. Removal of these sequences results in the elimination of an early (i.e. ~40,000 years ago) expansion signal we had proposed for the proto-Amerind population. Bayesian skyline plot analysis of a new dataset of Native American mitochondrial coding genomes confirms the absence of an early expansion signal for the proto-Amerind population and allows us to reduce the variation around our estimate of the New World founder population size. In addition, genetic variants that define New World founder haplogroups are used to estimate the amount of time required between divergence of proto-Amerinds from the Asian gene pool and expansion into the New World. The period of population isolation required for the generation of New World mitochondrial founder haplogroup-defining genetic variants makes the existence of three stages of colonization a logical conclusion. Thus, our three stage model remains an important and useful working hypothesis for researchers interested in the peopling of the Americas and the processes of colonization.

A Reevaluation of the Native American MtDNA Genome Diversity and Its Bearing on the Models of Early Colonization of Beringia:

The Americas were the last continents to be populated by humans, and their colonization represents a very interesting chapter in our species’ evolution in which important issues are still contentious or largely unknown. One difficult topic concerns the details of the early peopling of Beringia, such as for how long it was colonized before people moved into the Americas and the demography of this occupation. A recent work using mitochondrial genome (mtDNA) data presented evidence for a so called “three-stage model” consisting of a very early expansion into Beringia followed by ~20,000 years of population stability before the final entry into the Americas. However, these results are in disagreement with other recent studies using similar data and methods. Here, we reanalyze their data to check the robustness of this model and test the ability of Native American mtDNA to discriminate details of the early colonization of Beringia. We apply the Bayesian Skyline Plot approach to recover the past demographic dynamic underpinning these events using different mtDNA data sets. Our results refute the specific details of the “three-stage model”, since the early stage of expansion into Beringia followed by a long period of stasis could not be reproduced in any mtDNA data set cleaned from non-Native American haplotypes. Nevertheless, they are consistent with a moderate population bottleneck in Beringia associated with the Last Glacial Maximum followed by a strong population growth around 18,000 years ago as suggested by other recent studies. We suggest that this bottleneck erased the signals of ancient demographic history from recent Native American mtDNA pool, and conclude that the proposed early expansion and occupation of Beringia is an artifact caused by the misincorporation of non-Native American haplotypes.

Neural Correlates of Perceiving Emotional Faces and Bodies in Developmental Prosopagnosia: An Event-Related fMRI-Study:

Many people experience transient difficulties in recognizing faces but only a small number of them cannot recognize their family members when meeting them unexpectedly. Such face blindness is associated with serious problems in everyday life. A better understanding of the neuro-functional basis of impaired face recognition may be achieved by a careful comparison with an equally unique object category and by a adding a more realistic setting involving neutral faces as well facial expressions. We used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neuro-functional basis of perceiving faces and bodies in three developmental prosopagnosics (DP) and matched healthy controls. Our approach involved materials consisting of neutral faces and bodies as well as faces and bodies expressing fear or happiness. The first main result is that the presence of emotional information has a different effect in the patient vs. the control group in the fusiform face area (FFA). Neutral faces trigger lower activation in the DP group, compared to the control group, while activation for facial expressions is the same in both groups. The second main result is that compared to controls, DPs have increased activation for bodies in the inferior occipital gyrus (IOG) and for neutral faces in the extrastriate body area (EBA), indicating that body and face sensitive processes are less categorically segregated in DP. Taken together our study shows the importance of using naturalistic emotional stimuli for a better understanding of developmental face deficits.