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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 26 awesome new articles in PLoS ONE today. As always, you should rate the articles, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about the papers.

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The Dusk Chorus from an Owl Perspective: Eagle Owls Vocalize When Their White Throat Badge Contrasts Most:

An impressive number of studies have investigated bird vocal displays, and many of them have tried to explain the widespread phenomenon of the so-called dawn and dusk chorus, the sunrise and sunset peaks in bird song output. As many as twelve non-exclusive hypotheses have been proposed to explain why twilight peaks in vocal display might be advantageous; but, even after more than two decades of study, the basis underlying the dusk and dawn chorus is still unclear. Moreover, to date, the majority of studies on this topic have focused on songbirds. We investigate here a novel hypothesis on why nocturnal birds with patches of white feathers call at twilight. We propose that white plumage patches and the timing of visual signaling have co-evolved to maximize the effectiveness of social communication such as the dusk chorus. This hypothesis centers on the recent discovery that eagle owls can adopt specific forms of visual signaling and is supported by the observation that adult eagle owls possess a white throat badge that is only visible during vocal displays. By monitoring the calling of eagle owls at dusk, a peak time for bird call output, we found that white throat badges contrasted most with the surrounding background during the owls’ twilight chorusing. Crepuscular and nocturnal species appear to have evolved white patches that, shown in association with vocal displays, allow them to communicate in dark surroundings. The evolution of a white badge that operates jointly with call displays at dawn and dusk may be relevant to the eagle owls’ social dynamics. Our explanation for the dusk chorus may possibly represent an overlooked but common pattern of signaling among crepuscular and nocturnal birds that combine patches of white feathers with twilight displays. Furthermore, our findings could be relevant to songbirds that breed in dark forest habitats and have contrasting white badges, as well as birds living in open habitats and showing contrasting bars.

Reserves Protect against Deforestation Fires in the Amazon:

Reserves are the principal means to conserve forests and biodiversity, but the question of whether reserves work is still debated. In the Amazon, fires are closely linked to deforestation, and thus can be used as a proxy for reserve effectiveness in protecting forest cover. We ask whether reserves in the Brazilian Amazon provide effective protection against deforestation and consequently fires, whether that protection is because of their location or their legal status, and whether some reserve types are more effective than others. Previous work has shown that most Amazonian fires occur close to roads and are more frequent in El Niño years. We quantified these relationships for reserves and unprotected areas by examining satellite-detected hot pixels regressed against road distance across the entire Brazilian Amazon and for a decade with 2 El Niño-related droughts. Deforestation fires, as measured by hot pixels, declined exponentially with increasing distance from roads in all areas. Fewer deforestation fires occurred within protected areas than outside and the difference between protected and unprotected areas was greatest near roads. Thus, reserves were especially effective at preventing these fires where they are known to be most likely to burn; but they did not provide absolute protection. Even within reserves, at a given distance from roads, there were more deforestation fires in regions with high human impact than in those with low impact. The effect of El Niño on deforestation fires was greatest outside of reserves and near roads. Indigenous reserves, limited-use reserves, and fully protected reserves all had fewer fires than outside areas and did not appear to differ in their effectiveness. Taking time, regional factors, and climate into account, our results show that reserves are an effective tool for curbing destructive burning in the Amazon.

Do Synesthetes Have a General Advantage in Visual Search and Episodic Memory? A Case for Group Studies:

Some studies, most of them case-reports, suggest that synesthetes have an advantage in visual search and episodic memory tasks. The goal of this study was to examine this hypothesis in a group study. In the present study, we tested thirteen grapheme-color synesthetes and we compared their performance on a visual search task and a memory test to an age-, handedness-, education-, and gender-matched control group. The results showed no significant group differences (all relevant ps>.50). For the visual search task effect sizes indicated a small advantage for synesthetes (Cohen’s d between .19 and .32). No such advantage was found for episodic memory (Cohen’s d<.05). The results indicate that synesthesia per se does not seem to lead to a strong performance advantage. Rather, the superior performance of synesthetes observed in some case-report studies may be due to individual differences, to a selection bias or to a strategic use of synesthesia as a mnemonic. In order to establish universal effects of synesthesia on cognition single-case studies must be complemented by group studies.

Global Pyrogeography: the Current and Future Distribution of Wildfire:

Climate change is expected to alter the geographic distribution of wildfire, a complex abiotic process that responds to a variety of spatial and environmental gradients. How future climate change may alter global wildfire activity, however, is still largely unknown. As a first step to quantifying potential change in global wildfire, we present a multivariate quantification of environmental drivers for the observed, current distribution of vegetation fires using statistical models of the relationship between fire activity and resources to burn, climate conditions, human influence, and lightning flash rates at a coarse spatiotemporal resolution (100 km, over one decade). We then demonstrate how these statistical models can be used to project future changes in global fire patterns, highlighting regional hotspots of change in fire probabilities under future climate conditions as simulated by a global climate model. Based on current conditions, our results illustrate how the availability of resources to burn and climate conditions conducive to combustion jointly determine why some parts of the world are fire-prone and others are fire-free. In contrast to any expectation that global warming should necessarily result in more fire, we find that regional increases in fire probabilities may be counter-balanced by decreases at other locations, due to the interplay of temperature and precipitation variables. Despite this net balance, our models predict substantial invasion and retreat of fire across large portions of the globe. These changes could have important effects on terrestrial ecosystems since alteration in fire activity may occur quite rapidly, generating ever more complex environmental challenges for species dispersing and adjusting to new climate conditions. Our findings highlight the potential for widespread impacts of climate change on wildfire, suggesting severely altered fire regimes and the need for more explicit inclusion of fire in research on global vegetation-climate change dynamics and conservation planning.

Carotenoid-Based Colours Reflect the Stress Response in the Common Lizard:

Under chronic stress, carotenoid-based colouration has often been shown to fade. However, the ecological and physiological mechanisms that govern colouration still remain largely unknown. Colour changes may be directly induced by the stressor (for example through reduced carotenoid intake) or due to the activation of the physiological stress response (PSR, e.g. due to increased blood corticosterone concentrations). Here, we tested whether blood corticosterone concentration affected carotenoid-based colouration, and whether a trade-off between colouration and PSR existed. Using the common lizard (Lacerta vivipara), we correlatively and experimentally showed that elevated blood corticosterone levels are associated with increased redness of the lizard’s belly. In this study, the effects of corticosterone did not depend on carotenoid ingestion, indicating the absence of a trade-off between colouration and PSR for carotenoids. While carotenoid ingestion increased blood carotenoid concentration, colouration was not modified. This suggests that carotenoid-based colouration of common lizards is not severely limited by dietary carotenoid intake. Together with earlier studies, these findings suggest that the common lizard’s carotenoid-based colouration may be a composite trait, consisting of fixed (e.g. genetic) and environmentally elements, the latter reflecting the lizard’s PSR.

Wild Chimpanzees Exchange Meat for Sex on a Long-Term Basis:

Humans and chimpanzees are unusual among primates in that they frequently perform group hunts of mammalian prey and share meat with conspecifics. Especially interesting are cases in which males give meat to unrelated females. The meat-for-sex hypothesis aims at explaining these cases by proposing that males and females exchange meat for sex, which would result in males increasing their mating success and females increasing their caloric intake without suffering the energetic costs and potential risk of injury related to hunting. Although chimpanzees have been shown to share meat extensively with females, there has not been much direct evidence in this species to support the meat-for-sex hypothesis. Here we show that female wild chimpanzees copulate more frequently with those males who, over a period of 22 months, share meat with them. We excluded other alternative hypotheses to exchanging meat for sex, by statistically controlling for rank of the male, age, rank and gregariousness of the female, association patterns of each male-female dyad and meat begging frequency of each female. Although males were more likely to share meat with estrous than anestrous females given their proportional representation in hunting parties, the relationship between mating success and sharing meat remained significant after excluding from the analysis sharing episodes with estrous females. These results strongly suggest that wild chimpanzees exchange meat for sex, and do so on a long-term basis. Similar studies on humans will determine if the direct nutritional benefits that women receive from hunters in foraging societies could also be driving the relationship between reproductive success and good hunting skills.

Neonatal Handling Affects Durably Bonding and Social Development:

The neonatal period in humans and in most mammals is characterized by intense mother-young interactions favoring pair bonding and the adaptation of neonates to their new environment. However, in many post-delivery procedures, human babies commonly experience combined maternal separation and intense handling for about one hour post-birth. Currently, the effects of such disturbances on later attachment and on the development of newborns are still debated: clearly, further investigations are required. As animals present good models for controlled experimentation, we chose domestic horses to investigate this issue. Horses, like humans, are characterized by single births, long lactating periods and selective mother-infant bonds. Routine postnatal procedures for foals, as for human babies, also involve intense handling and maternal separation. In the present study, we monitored the behavior of foals from early stages of development to “adolescence”, in a normal ecological context (social groups with adults and peers). Experimental foals, separated from their mothers and handled for only 1 hour post-birth, were compared to control foals, left undisturbed after birth. Our results revealed short- and long-term effects of this unique neonatal experience on attachment and subsequent social competences. Thus, experimental foals presented patterns of insecure attachment to their mothers (strong dependence on their mothers, little play) and impaired social competences (social withdrawal, aggressiveness) at all ages. We discuss these results in terms of mother-young interactions, timing of interactions and relationships between bonding and subsequent social competences. Our results indicate that this ungulate species could become an interesting animal model. To our knowledge, this is the first clear demonstration that intervention just after birth affects bonding and subsequent social competences (at least until “adolescence”). It opens new research directions for studies on both humans and other animals.

Choreography of the Transcriptome, Photophysiology, and Cell Cycle of a Minimal Photoautotroph, Prochlorococcus:

The marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus MED4 has the smallest genome and cell size of all known photosynthetic organisms. Like all phototrophs at temperate latitudes, it experiences predictable daily variation in available light energy which leads to temporal regulation and partitioning of key cellular processes. To better understand the tempo and choreography of this minimal phototroph, we studied the entire transcriptome of the cell over a simulated daily light-dark cycle, and placed it in the context of diagnostic physiological and cell cycle parameters. All cells in the culture progressed through their cell cycles in synchrony, thus ensuring that our measurements reflected the behavior of individual cells. Ninety percent of the annotated genes were expressed, and 80% had cyclic expression over the diel cycle. For most genes, expression peaked near sunrise or sunset, although more subtle phasing of gene expression was also evident. Periodicities of the transcripts of genes involved in physiological processes such as in cell cycle progression, photosynthesis, and phosphorus metabolism tracked the timing of these activities relative to the light-dark cycle. Furthermore, the transitions between photosynthesis during the day and catabolic consumption of energy reserves at night– metabolic processes that share some of the same enzymes — appear to be tightly choreographed at the level of RNA expression. In-depth investigation of these patterns identified potential regulatory proteins involved in balancing these opposing pathways. Finally, while this analysis has not helped resolve how a cell with so little regulatory capacity, and a ‘deficient’ circadian mechanism, aligns its cell cycle and metabolism so tightly to a light-dark cycle, it does provide us with a valuable framework upon which to build when the Prochlorococcus proteome and metabolome become available.