There are 12 new articles in PLoS ONE this week. 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:
For generations many families in and around Florida's Apalachicola National Forest have supported themselves by collecting the large endemic earthworms (Diplocardia mississippiensis). This is accomplished by vibrating a wooden stake driven into the soil, a practice called "worm grunting". In response to the vibrations, worms emerge to the surface where thousands can be gathered in a few hours. Why do these earthworms suddenly exit their burrows in response to vibrations, exposing themselves to predation. Here it is shown that a population of eastern American moles (Scalopus aquaticus) inhabits the area where worms are collected and that earthworms have a pronounced escape response from moles consisting of rapidly exiting their burrows to flee across the soil surface. Recordings of vibrations generated by bait collectors and moles suggest that "worm grunters" unknowingly mimic digging moles. An alternative possibility, that worms interpret vibrations as rain and surface to avoid drowning is not supported. Previous investigations have revealed that both wood turtles and herring gulls vibrate the ground to elicit earthworm escapes, indicating that a range of predators may exploit the predator-prey relationship between earthworms and moles. In addition to revealing a novel escape response that may be widespread among soil fauna, the results show that humans have played the role of "rare predators" in exploiting the consequences of a sensory arms race.
Honey bees display a complex set of anatomical, physiological, and behavioral traits that correlate with the colony storage of surplus pollen (pollen hoarding). We hypothesize that the association of these traits is a result of pleiotropy in a gene signaling network that was co-opted by natural selection to function in worker division of labor and foraging specialization. By acting on the gene network, selection can change a suite of traits, including stimulus/response relationships that affect individual foraging behavior and alter the colony level trait of pollen hoarding. The 'pollen-hoarding syndrome' of honey bees is the best documented syndrome of insect social organization. It can be exemplified as a link between reproductive anatomy (ovary size), physiology (yolk protein level), and foraging behavior in honey bee strains selected for pollen hoarding, a colony level trait. The syndrome gave rise to the forager-Reproductive Ground Plan Hypothesis (RGPH), which proposes that the regulatory control of foraging onset and foraging preference toward nectar or pollen was derived from a reproductive signaling network. This view was recently challenged. To resolve the controversy, we tested the associations between reproductive anatomy, physiology, and stimulus/response relationships of behavior in wild-type honey bees. Central to the stimulus/response relationships of honey bee foraging behavior and pollen hoarding is the behavioral trait of sensory sensitivity to sucrose (an important sugar in nectar). To test the linkage of reproductive traits and sensory response systems of social behavior, we measured sucrose responsiveness with the proboscis extension response (PER) assay and quantified ovary size and vitellogenin (yolk precursor) gene expression in 6-7-day-old bees by counting ovarioles (ovary filaments) and by using semiquantitative real time RT-PCR. We show that bees with larger ovaries (more ovarioles) are characterized by higher levels of vitellogenin mRNA expression and are more responsive to sucrose solutions, a trait that is central to division of labor and foraging specialization. Our results establish that in wild-type honey bees, ovary size and vitellogenin mRNA level covary with the sucrose sensory response system, an important component of foraging behavior. This finding validates links between reproductive physiology and behavioral-trait associations of the pollen-hoarding syndrome of honey bees, and supports the forager-RGPH. Our data address a current evolutionary debate, and represent the first direct demonstration of the links between reproductive anatomy, physiology, and behavioral response systems that are central to the control of complex social behavior in insects.
Previous genetic studies of modern and ancient mitochondrial DNA have confirmed the Near Eastern origin of early European domestic cattle. However, these studies were not able to test whether hybridisation with male aurochs occurred post-domestication. To address this issue, GÃ¶therstrÃ¶m and colleagues (2005) investigated the frequencies of two Y-chromosomal haplotypes in extant bulls. They found a significant influence of wild aurochs males on domestic populations thus challenging the common view on early domestication and Neolithic stock-rearing. To test their hypothesis, we applied these Y-markers on Neolithic bone specimens from various European archaeological sites. Here, we have analysed the ancient DNA of 59 Neolithic skeletal samples. After initial molecular sexing, two segregating Y-SNPs were identified in 13 bulls. Strikingly, our results do not support the hypothesis that these markers distinguish European aurochs from domesticated cattle. The model of a rapid introduction of domestic cattle into Central Europe without significant crossbreeding with local wild cattle remains unchallenged.
Understanding of the magnitude and direction of the exchange of individuals among geographically separated subpopulations that comprise a metapopulation (connectivity) can lead to an improved ability to forecast how fast coral reef organisms are likely to recover from disturbance events that cause extensive mortality. Reef corals that brood their larvae internally and release mature larvae are believed to show little exchange of larvae over ecological times scales and are therefore expected to recover extremely slowly from large-scale perturbations. Using analysis of ten DNA microsatellite loci, we show that although Great Barrier Reef (GBR) populations of the brooding coral, Seriatopora hystrix, are mostly self-seeded and some populations are highly isolated, a considerable amount of sexual larvae (up to ~4%) has been exchanged among several reefs 10 s to 100 s km apart over the past few generations. Our results further indicate that S. hystrix is capable of producing asexual propagules with similar long-distance dispersal abilities (~1.4% of the sampled colonies had a multilocus genotype that also occurred at another sampling location), which may aid in recovery from environmental disturbances. Patterns of connectivity in this and probably other GBR corals are complex and need to be resolved in greater detail through genetic characterisation of different cohorts and linkage of genetic data with fine-scale hydrodynamic models.
Getting older is associated with a decline of cognitive and sensorimotor abilities, but it remains elusive whether age-related changes are due to accumulating degenerational processes, rendering them largely irreversible, or whether they reflect plastic, adaptational and presumably compensatory changes. Using aged rats as a model we studied how aging affects neural processing in somatosensory cortex. By multi-unit recordings in the fore- and hindpaw cortical maps we compared the effects of aging on receptive field size and response latencies. While in aged animals response latencies of neurons of both cortical representations were lengthened by approximately the same amount, only RFs of hindpaw neurons showed severe expansion with only little changes of forepaw RFs. To obtain insight into parallel changes of walking behavior, we recorded footprints in young and old animals which revealed a general age-related impairment of walking. In addition we found evidence for a limb-specific deterioration of the hindlimbs that was not observed in the forelimbs. Our results show that age-related changes of somatosensory cortical neurons display a complex pattern of regional specificity and parameter-dependence indicating that aging acts rather selectively on cortical processing of sensory information. The fact that RFs of the fore- and hindpaws do not co-vary in aged animals argues against degenerational processes on a global scale. We therefore conclude that age-related alterations are composed of plastic-adaptive alterations in response to modified use and degenerational changes developing with age. As a consequence, age-related changes need not be irreversible but can be subject to amelioration through training and stimulation.