There are 30 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:
Oceanic islands are well known for harboring diverse species assemblages and are frequently the basis of research on adaptive radiation and neoendemism. However, a commonly overlooked role of some islands is their function in preserving ancient lineages that have become extinct everywhere else (paleoendemism). The island archipelago of Bermuda is home to a single species of extant terrestrial vertebrate, the endemic skink Plestiodon (formerly Eumeces) longirostris. The presence of this species is surprising because Bermuda is an isolated, relatively young oceanic island approximately 1000 km from the eastern United States. Here, we apply Bayesian phylogenetic analyses using a relaxed molecular clock to demonstrate that the island of Bermuda, although no older than two million years, is home to the only extant representative of one of the earliest mainland North American Plestiodon lineages, which diverged from its closest living relatives 11.5 to 19.8 million years ago. This implies that, within a short geological time frame, mainland North American ancestors of P. longirostris colonized the recently emergent Bermuda and the entire lineage subsequently vanished from the mainland. Thus, our analyses reveal that Bermuda is an example of a "life raft" preserving millions of years of unique evolutionary history, now at the brink of extinction. Threats such as habitat destruction, littering, and non-native species have severely reduced the population size of this highly endangered lizard.
Understanding stopover decisions of long-distance migratory birds is crucial for conservation and management of these species along their migratory flyway. Recently, an increasing number of Barnacle geese breeding in the Russian Arctic have delayed their departure from their wintering site in the Netherlands by approximately one month and have reduced their staging duration at stopover sites in the Baltic accordingly. Consequently, this extended stay increases agricultural damage in the Netherlands. Using a dynamic state variable approach we explored three hypotheses about the underlying causes of these changes in migratory behavior, possibly related to changes in (i) onset of spring, (ii) potential intake rates and (iii) predation danger at wintering and stopover sites. Our simulations showed that the observed advance in onset of spring contradicts the observed delay of departure, whereas both increased predation danger and decreased intake rates in the Baltic can explain the delay. Decreased intake rates are expected as a result of increased competition for food in the growing Barnacle goose population. However, the effect of predation danger in the model was particularly strong, and we hypothesize that Barnacle geese avoid Baltic stopover sites as a response to the rapidly increasing number of avian predators in the area. Therefore, danger should be considered as an important factor influencing Barnacle goose migratory behavior, and receive more attention in empirical studies.
Scientists are increasingly revealing the commonalities between the intellectual, emotional and moral capacities of animals and humans. Providing assistance to elderly and ailing family members is a human trait rarely documented for wild animals, other than anecdotal accounts. Here I report observations of multiple forms of assistance to the declining matriarch of a habituated group of giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) in Manu National Park, Peru. The otter group had been observed annually for several years and all members were known individually. In 2007, the breeding female of the group failed to reproduce and appeared to be in physical decline. She begged from other family members 43 times over 41 contact hours and received food 11 times. Comparisons with 2004-2006 demonstrate that the family's behavior in 2007 constitutes a role-reversal, in which the majority of assistance and prey transfers accrued from young-to-old rather than from old-to-young. As in human societies, both non-adaptive and adaptive hypotheses could explain the family members' aid to their declining matriarch. I suggest that giant otter families may benefit from the knowledge and experience of an elderly matriarch and "grandparent helper," consistent with the "Grandmother Hypothesis" of adaptive menopause in women.
Even highly mutually beneficial microbial-plant interactions, such as mycorrhizal- and rhizobial-plant exchanges, involve selfishness, cheating and power-struggles between the partners, which depending on prevailing selective pressures, lead to a continuum of interactions from antagonistic to mutualistic. Using manipulated grass-endophyte combinations in a five year common garden experiment, we show that grass genotypes and genetic mismatches constrain genetic combinations between the vertically (via host seeds) transmitted endophytes and the out-crossing host, thereby reducing infections in established grass populations. Infections were lost in both grass tillers and seedlings in F1 and F2 generations, respectively. Experimental plants were collected as seeds from two different environments, i.e., meadows and nearby riverbanks. Endophyte-related benefits to the host included an increased number of inflorescences, but only in meadow plants and not until the last growing season of the experiment. Our results illustrate the importance of genetic host specificity and trans-generational maternal effects on the genetic structure of a host population, which act as destabilizing forces in endophyte-grass symbioses. We propose that (1) genetic mismatches may act as a buffering mechanism against highly competitive endophyte-grass genotype combinations threatening the biodiversity of grassland communities and (2) these mismatches should be acknowledged, particularly in breeding programmes aimed at harnessing systemic and heritable endophytes to improve the agriculturally valuable characteristics of cultivars.