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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

Another amazing serving of Wednesday sciencey goodness with 40 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. You can now also easily place articles on various social services (CiteULike, Mendeley, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook and Digg) with just one click. Here are my own picks for the week – you go and look for your own favourites:

A New Pterosaur (Pterodactyloidea: Azhdarchidae) from the Upper Cretaceous of Morocco:

The Kem Kem beds in South Eastern Morocco contain a rich early Upper (or possibly late Lower) Cretaceous vertebrate assemblage. Fragmentary remains, predominantly teeth and jaw tips, represent several kinds of pterosaur although only one species, the ornithocheirid Coloborhynchus moroccensis, has been named. Here, we describe a new azhdarchid pterosaur, Alanqa saharica nov. gen. nov. sp., based on an almost complete well preserved mandibular symphysis from Aferdou N’Chaft. We assign additional fragmentary jaw remains, some of which have been tentatively identified as azhdarchid and pteranodontid, to this new taxon which is distinguished from other azhdarchids by a remarkably straight, elongate, lance-shaped mandibular symphysis that bears a pronounced dorsal eminence near the posterior end of its dorsal (occlusal) surface. Most remains, including the holotype, represent individuals of approximately three to four meters in wingspan, but a fragment of a large cervical vertebra, that probably also belongs to A. saharica, suggests that wingspans of six meters were achieved in this species. The Kem Kem beds have yielded the most diverse pterosaur assemblage yet reported from Africa and provide the first clear evidence for the presence of azhdarchids in Gondwana at the start of the Late Cretaceous. This, the relatively large size achieved by Alanqa, and the additional evidence of variable jaw morphology in azhdarchids provided by this taxon, indicates a longer and more complex history for this clade than previously suspected.

Large-Range Movements of Neotropical Orchid Bees Observed via Radio Telemetry:

Neotropical orchid bees (Euglossini) are often cited as classic examples of trapline-foragers with potentially extensive foraging ranges. If long-distance movements are habitual, rare plants in widely scattered locations may benefit from euglossine pollination services. Here we report the first successful use of micro radio telemetry to track the movement of an insect pollinator in a complex and forested environment. Our results indicate that individual male orchid bees (Exaerete frontalis) habitually use large rainforest areas (at least 42-115 ha) on a daily basis. Aerial telemetry located individuals up to 5 km away from their core areas, and bees were often stationary, for variable periods, between flights to successive localities. These data suggest a higher degree of site fidelity than what may be expected in a free living male bee, and has implications for our understanding of biological activity patterns and the evolution of forest pollinators.

Helper Response to Experimentally Manipulated Predation Risk in the Cooperatively Breeding Cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher:

We manipulated predation risk in a field experiment with the cooperatively breeding cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher by releasing no predator, a medium- or a large-sized fish predator inside underwater cages enclosing two to three natural groups. We assessed whether helpers changed their helping behaviour, and whether within-group conflict changed, depending on these treatments, testing three hypotheses: ‘pay-to-stay’ PS, ‘risk avoidance’ RA, or (future) reproductive benefits RB. We also assessed whether helper food intake was reduced under risk, because this might reduce investments in other behaviours to save energy. Medium and large helpers fed less under predation risk. Despite this effect helpers invested more in territory defence, but not territory maintenance, under the risk of predation (supporting PS). Experimentally covering only the breeding shelter with sand induced more helper digging under predation risk compared to the control treatment (supporting PS). Aggression towards the introduced predator did not differ between the two predator treatments and increased with group member size and group size (supporting PS and RA). Large helpers increased their help ratio (helping effort/breeder aggression received, ‘punishment’ by the dominant pair in the group) in the predation treatments compared to the control treatment, suggesting they were more willing to PS. Medium helpers did not show such effects. Large helpers also showed a higher submission ratio (submission/ breeder aggression received) in all treatments, compared to the medium helpers (supporting PS). We conclude that predation risk reduces helper food intake, but despite this effect, helpers were more willing to support the breeders, supporting PS. Effects of breeder punishment suggests that PS might be more important for large compared to the medium helpers. Evidence for RA was also detected. Finally, the results were inconsistent with RB.

The Promise and Perils of Pre-Publication Review: A Multi-Agent Simulation of Biomedical Discovery Under Varying Levels of Review Stringency:

The Internet has enabled profound changes in the way science is performed, especially in scientific communications. Among the most important of these changes is the possibility of new models for pre-publication review, ranging from the current, relatively strict peer-review model, to entirely unreviewed, instant self-publication. Different models may affect scientific progress by altering both the quality and quantity of papers available to the research community. To test how models affect the community, I used a multi-agent simulation of treatment selection and outcome in a patient population to examine how various levels of pre-publication review might affect the rate of scientific progress. I identified a “sweet spot” between the points of very limited and very strict requirements for pre-publication review. The model also produced a u-shaped curve where very limited review requirement was slightly superior to a moderate level of requirement, but not as large as the aforementioned sweet spot. This unexpected phenomenon appears to result from the community taking longer to discover the correct treatment with more strict pre-publication review. In the parameter regimens I explored, both completely unreviewed and very strictly reviewed scientific communication seems likely to hinder scientific progress. Much more investigation is warranted. Multi-agent simulations can help to shed light on complex questions of scientific communication and exhibit interesting, unexpected behaviors.

Recurrent, Robust and Scalable Patterns Underlie Human Approach and Avoidance:

Approach and avoidance behavior provide a means for assessing the rewarding or aversive value of stimuli, and can be quantified by a keypress procedure whereby subjects work to increase (approach), decrease (avoid), or do nothing about time of exposure to a rewarding/aversive stimulus. To investigate whether approach/avoidance behavior might be governed by quantitative principles that meet engineering criteria for lawfulness and that encode known features of reward/aversion function, we evaluated whether keypress responses toward pictures with potential motivational value produced any regular patterns, such as a trade-off between approach and avoidance, or recurrent lawful patterns as observed with prospect theory. Three sets of experiments employed this task with beautiful face images, a standardized set of affective photographs, and pictures of food during controlled states of hunger and satiety. An iterative modeling approach to data identified multiple law-like patterns, based on variables grounded in the individual. These patterns were consistent across stimulus types, robust to noise, describable by a simple power law, and scalable between individuals and groups. Patterns included: (i) a preference trade-off counterbalancing approach and avoidance, (ii) a value function linking preference intensity to uncertainty about preference, and (iii) a saturation function linking preference intensity to its standard deviation, thereby setting limits to both. These law-like patterns were compatible with critical features of prospect theory, the matching law, and alliesthesia. Furthermore, they appeared consistent with both mean-variance and expected utility approaches to the assessment of risk. Ordering of responses across categories of stimuli demonstrated three properties thought to be relevant for preference-based choice, suggesting these patterns might be grouped together as a relative preference theory. Since variables in these patterns have been associated with reward circuitry structure and function, they may provide a method for quantitative phenotyping of normative and pathological function (e.g., psychiatric illness).

Coevolution in Action: Disruptive Selection on Egg Colour in an Avian Brood Parasite and Its Host:

Trait polymorphism can evolve as a consequence of frequency-dependent selection. Coevolutionary interactions between hosts and parasites may lead to selection on both to evolve extreme phenotypes deviating from the norm, through disruptive selection. Here, we show through detailed field studies and experimental procedures that the ashy-throated parrotbill (Paradoxornis alphonsianus) and its avian brood parasite, the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), have both evolved egg polymorphism manifested in discrete immaculate white, pale blue, and blue egg phenotypes within a single population. In this host-parasite system the most common egg colours were white and blue, with no significant difference in parasitism rates between hosts laying eggs of either colour. Furthermore, selection on parasites for countering the evolution of host egg types appears to be strong, since ashy-throated parrotbills have evolved rejection abilities for even partially mimetic eggs. The parrotbill-cuckoo system constitutes a clear outcome of disruptive selection on both host and parasite egg phenotypes driven by coevolution, due to the cost of parasitism in the host and by host defences in the parasite. The present study is to our knowledge the first to report the influence of disruptive selection on evolution of discrete phenotypes in both parasite and host traits in an avian brood parasitism system.

The Effects of Nutrient Dynamics on Root Patch Choice:

Plants have been recognized to be capable of allocating more roots to rich patches in the soil. We tested the hypothesis that in addition to their sensitivity to absolute differences in nutrient availability, plants are also responsive to temporal changes in nutrient availability. Different roots of the same Pisum sativum plants were subjected to variable homogeneous and heterogeneous temporally – dynamic and static nutrient regimes. When given a choice, plants not only developed greater root biomasses in richer patches; they discriminately allocated more resources to roots that developed in patches with increasing nutrient levels, even when their other roots developed in richer patches. These results suggest that plants are able to perceive and respond to dynamic environmental changes. This ability might enable plants to increase their performance by responding to both current and anticipated resource availabilities in their immediate proximity.

Bacterial Gut Symbionts Contribute to Seed Digestion in an Omnivorous Beetle:

Obligate bacterial symbionts alter the diets of host animals in numerous ways, but the ecological roles of facultative bacterial residents that colonize insect guts remain unclear. Carabid beetles are a common group of beneficial insects appreciated for their ability to consume insect prey and seeds, but the contributions of microbes to diet diversification in this and similar groups of facultative granivores are largely unknown. Using 16S rRNA gene clone libraries and terminal restriction fragment (tRF) length polymorphism analyses of these genes, we examined the bacterial communities within the guts of facultatively granivorous, adult Harpalus pensylvanicus (Carabidae), fed one of five dietary treatments: 1) an untreated Field population, 2) Seeds with antibiotics (seeds were from Chenopodium album), 3) Seeds without antibiotics, 4) Prey with antibiotics (prey were Acheta domesticus eggs), and 5) Prey without antibiotics. The number of seeds and prey consumed by each beetle were recorded following treatment. Harpalus pensylvanicus possessed a fairly simple gut community of approximately 3-4 bacterial operational taxonomic units (OTU) per beetle that were affiliated with the Gammaproteobacteria, Bacilli, Alphaproteobacteria, and Mollicutes. Bacterial communities of the host varied among the diet and antibiotic treatments. The field population and beetles fed seeds without antibiotics had the closest matching bacterial communities, and the communities in the beetles fed antibiotics were more closely related to each other than to those of the beetles that did not receive antibiotics. Antibiotics reduced and altered the bacterial communities found in the beetle guts. Moreover, beetles fed antibiotics ate fewer seeds, and those beetles that harbored the bacterium Enterococcus faecalis consumed more seeds on average than those lacking this symbiont. We conclude that the relationships between the bacterium E. faecalis and this factultative granivore’s ability to consume seeds merit further investigation, and that facultative associations with symbiotic bacteria have important implications for the nutritional ecology of their hosts.

The Nature of Working Memory for Braille:

Blind individuals have been shown on multiple occasions to compensate for their loss of sight by developing exceptional abilities in their remaining senses. While most research has been focused on perceptual abilities per se in the auditory and tactile modalities, recent work has also investigated higher-order processes involving memory and language functions. Here we examined tactile working memory for Braille in two groups of visually challenged individuals (completely blind subjects, CBS; blind with residual vision, BRV). In a first experimental procedure both groups were given a Braille tactile memory span task with and without articulatory suppression, while the BRV and a sighted group performed a visual version of the task. It was shown that the Braille tactile working memory (BrWM) of CBS individuals under articulatory suppression is as efficient as that of sighted individuals’ visual working memory in the same condition. Moreover, the results suggest that BrWM may be more robust in the CBS than in the BRV subjects, thus pointing to the potential role of visual experience in shaping tactile working memory. A second experiment designed to assess the nature (spatial vs. verbal) of this working memory was then carried out with two new CBS and BRV groups having to perform the Braille task concurrently with a mental arithmetic task or a mental displacement of blocks task. We show that the disruption of memory was greatest when concurrently carrying out the mental displacement of blocks, indicating that the Braille tactile subsystem of working memory is likely spatial in nature in CBS. The results also point to the multimodal nature of working memory and show how experience can shape the development of its subcomponents.

Bacterial Biodiversity-Ecosystem Functioning Relations Are Modified by Environmental Complexity:

With the recognition that environmental change resulting from anthropogenic activities is causing a global decline in biodiversity, much attention has been devoted to understanding how changes in biodiversity may alter levels of ecosystem functioning. Although environmental complexity has long been recognised as a major driving force in evolutionary processes, it has only recently been incorporated into biodiversity-ecosystem functioning investigations. Environmental complexity is expected to strengthen the positive effect of species richness on ecosystem functioning, mainly because it leads to stronger complementarity effects, such as resource partitioning and facilitative interactions among species when the number of available resource increases. Here we implemented an experiment to test the combined effect of species richness and environmental complexity, more specifically, resource richness on ecosystem functioning over time. We show, using all possible combinations of species within a bacterial community consisting of six species, and all possible combinations of three substrates, that diversity-functioning (metabolic activity) relationships change over time from linear to saturated. This was probably caused by a combination of limited complementarity effects and negative interactions among competing species as the experiment progressed. Even though species richness and resource richness both enhanced ecosystem functioning, they did so independently from each other. Instead there were complex interactions between particular species and substrate combinations. Our study shows clearly that both species richness and environmental complexity increase ecosystem functioning. The finding that there was no direct interaction between these two factors, but that instead rather complex interactions between combinations of certain species and resources underlie positive biodiversity ecosystem functioning relationships, suggests that detailed knowledge of how individual species interact with complex natural environments will be required in order to make reliable predictions about how altered levels of biodiversity will most likely affect ecosystem functioning.

Changing Patterns of Microhabitat Utilization by the Threespot Damselfish, Stegastes planifrons, on Caribbean Reefs:

The threespot damselfish, Stegastes planifrons (Cuvier), is important in mediating interactions among corals, algae, and herbivores on Caribbean coral reefs. The preferred microhabitat of S. planifrons is thickets of the branching staghorn coral Acropora cervicornis. Within the past few decades, mass mortality of A. cervicornis from white-band disease and other factors has rendered this coral a minor ecological component throughout most of its range. Survey data from Jamaica (heavily fished), Florida and the Bahamas (moderately fished), the Cayman Islands (lightly to moderately fished), and Belize (lightly fished) indicate that distributional patterns of S. planifrons are positively correlated with live coral cover and topographic complexity. Our results suggest that species-specific microhabitat preferences and the availability of topographically complex microhabitats are more important than the abundance of predatory fish as proximal controls on S. planifrons distribution and abundance. The loss of the primary microhabitat of S. planifrons–A. cervicornis–has forced a shift in the distribution and recruitment of these damselfish onto remaining high-structured corals, especially the Montastraea annularis species complex, affecting coral mortality and algal dynamics throughout the Caribbean.

The Power of Exercise: Buffering the Effect of Chronic Stress on Telomere Length:

Chronic psychological stress is associated with detrimental effects on physical health, and may operate in part through accelerated cell aging, as indexed by shorter telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. However, not all people under stress have distinctly short telomeres, and we examined whether exercise can serve a stress-buffering function. We predicted that chronic stress would be related to short telomere length (TL) in sedentary individuals, whereas in those who exercise, stress would not have measurable effects on telomere shortening. 63 healthy post-menopausal women underwent a fasting morning blood draw for whole blood TL analysis by a quantitative polymerase chain reaction method. Participants completed the Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen et al., 1983), and for three successive days reported daily minutes of vigorous activity. Participants were categorized into two groups-sedentary and active (those getting Centers for Disease Control-recommended daily amount of activity). The likelihood of having short versus long telomeres was calculated as a function of stress and exercise group, covarying age, BMI and education. Logistic regression analyses revealed a significant moderating effect of exercise. As predicted, among non-exercisers a one unit increase in the Perceived Stress Scale was related to a 15-fold increase in the odds of having short telomeres (p<.05), whereas in exercisers, perceived stress appears to be unrelated to TL (B = −.59, SE = .78, p = .45). Vigorous physical activity appears to protect those experiencing high stress by buffering its relationship with TL. We propose pathways through which physical activity acts to buffer stress effects.

‘Functional Connectivity’ Is a Sensitive Predictor of Epilepsy Diagnosis after the First Seizure:

Although epilepsy affects almost 1% of the world population, diagnosis of this debilitating disease is still difficult. The EEG is an important tool for epilepsy diagnosis and classification, but the sensitivity of interictal epileptiform discharges (IEDs) on the first EEG is only 30-50%. Here we investigate whether using ‘functional connectivity’ can improve the diagnostic sensitivity of the first interictal EEG in the diagnosis of epilepsy. Patients were selected from a database with 390 standard EEGs of patients after a first suspected seizure. Patients who were later diagnosed with epilepsy (i.e. ≥two seizures) were compared to matched non-epilepsy patients (with a minimum follow-up of one year). The synchronization likelihood (SL) was used as an index of functional connectivity of the EEG, and average SL per patient was calculated in seven frequency bands. In total, 114 patients were selected. Fifty-seven patients were diagnosed with epilepsy (20 had IEDs on their EEG) and 57 matched patients had other diagnoses. Epilepsy patients had significantly higher SL in the theta band than non-epilepsy patients. Furthermore, theta band SL proved to be a significant predictor of a diagnosis of epilepsy. When only those epilepsy patients without IEDs were considered (n = 74), theta band SL could predict diagnosis with specificity of 76% and sensitivity of 62%. Theta band functional connectivity may be a useful diagnostic tool in diagnosing epilepsy, especially in those patients who do not show IEDs on their first EEG. Our results indicate that epilepsy diagnosis could be improved by using functional connectivity.

The Brain Functional Networks Associated to Human and Animal Suffering Differ among Omnivores, Vegetarians and Vegans:

Empathy and affective appraisals for conspecifics are among the hallmarks of social interaction. Using functional MRI, we hypothesized that vegetarians and vegans, who made their feeding choice for ethical reasons, might show brain responses to conditions of suffering involving humans or animals different from omnivores. We recruited 20 omnivore subjects, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans. The groups were matched for sex and age. Brain activation was investigated using fMRI and an event-related design during observation of negative affective pictures of human beings and animals (showing mutilations, murdered people, human/animal threat, tortures, wounds, etc.). Participants saw negative-valence scenes related to humans and animals, alternating with natural landscapes. During human negative valence scenes, compared with omnivores, vegetarians and vegans had an increased recruitment of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). More critically, during animal negative valence scenes, they had decreased amygdala activation and increased activation of the lingual gyri, the left cuneus, the posterior cingulate cortex and several areas mainly located in the frontal lobes, including the ACC, the IFG and the middle frontal gyrus. Nonetheless, also substantial differences between vegetarians and vegans have been found responding to negative scenes. Vegetarians showed a selective recruitment of the right inferior parietal lobule during human negative scenes, and a prevailing activation of the ACC during animal negative scenes. Conversely, during animal negative scenes an increased activation of the inferior prefrontal cortex was observed in vegans. These results suggest that empathy toward non conspecifics has different neural representation among individuals with different feeding habits, perhaps reflecting different motivational factors and beliefs.