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Friday, December 30, 2011

Tale of Two Skinks

There are two edges to the sword of change that is slicing through so much of the biological skin of our planet.  The first is the staggering loss of biological diversity, adding up one of the great waves of extinction in Earth's history.  Along the trailing edge, ecosystems and the species that evolved in them are under increasing pressure from species new to the system.  We pay a lot of attention to the problem of extinction, but much less to invasion, even though it can and does contribute to the former.  It is perhaps a bit easier to rally to save a charismatic species such as a panda rather than organize to fight the diffuse threat posed by signal crayfish or purple loosestrife or kudzu.  However, scientists have started asking why some species become so destructively overabundant even though close relatives may be on an endangered list. 

Behavior alone won't dictate success.  Species that establish in new places also tend to be introduced over and over,  increasing the odds that eventually, a few individuals will survive the initial colonization event.  This in turn may be dictated by who lives where the most common transport routes start.  However, individual behavior seems to play a larger role than we expected.

Kudzu consuming a barn in North Carolina. Photo: NASA

If you want to successfully colonize a distant planet, you might consider taking a close look at how this works right here at home.  First, you've got to get yourself on some kind of transport vehicle, whether in the gut of another animal or the hold of a trading vessel or cargo plane headed elsewhere.  Realize you're probably not a welcome passenger, so you've got to be discreet.  You have to survive the journey, which means somehow finding or maintaining conditions in which you can live, with enough water, warmth and energy to avoid death.  Once you arrive, you need to sneak out of the way lest you be caught in the act and exterminated.  Very few stowaways make it this far, but the journey isn't over yet.  You need to find appropriate food, water, and shelter in these new, unknown surroundings.  Eventually, you need to reproduce successfully, which means you need to find, recognize, and successfully interact with a mate.  Next, your children must also raise children.  The resulting little community must avoid being found and eradicated, and finally, new colonists must leave and establish more communities before the invasion can be considered a success.

The odds, in short, are heavily stacked against you.  However, even if animals don't get help (in the form of deliberate introductions by people, such as starlings in North America, cane toads in Hawaii and Australia, or possums in New Zealand), some species still manage to pull it off.  We've just started to think about how animal behavior influences the risk of successful invasion.

The delicate skink, Lampropholis delicata, and its cousin the garden skink (Lampropholis guichenoti), illustrate the point.  The delicate skink is native to eastern Australia, but has managed to colonize New Zealand, Hawaii, and Lord Howe Island.  The closely related garden skink, however, has stayed home even though it is quite similiar to its more adventurous cousin in many ways.  The two skinks are similar in size, have similar diets, and similar life histories.  Both species live together in urban areas in Australia, close to transport hubs such as major shipping ports and airports.  Both are common, and occur at high densities, suggesting no lack of individuals available for export.  What, then, is different?

Although both skinks like to explore new environments, the delicate skink was far more willing to move through a tube when it couldn't see the exit, enter a small black box in the test cage, and walk up a graveled ramp to reach a heat lamp suspended above the cage floor.  A greater willingness to explore, then hide, may explain a good part of why delicate skinks are called plague skinks while garden skinks have been at worst temporary tourists who never established outside their native range.  The opportunity to become a problem appears to be the same, but the behavior of the animals influences who takes advantage of that opportunity.

Garden skink.  Photo: Peter Robinson, Museum Victoria, Australia.

Not all delicate skinks successfully found the elevated basking site; animals, after all, are individuals.  Other research found that individual mosquitofish vary in their tendency to strike out for new horizons.  Interestingly, fish that chose to disperse also seemed less tolerant of other mosquito fish, and these personality traits were consistent in individuals over the study.  There may need to be a range of personalities and behavioral tendencies to support a successful invasion from start to establishment. 

We don't often think of the individuality of wild animals, or how much that might matter to the survival of a species.  If we were better at recognizing the individuality of non-domesticated animals, how might that change our view of them?

Chapple, D.G., S. M Simmonds, and B.B.M. Wong. 2012. Can behavioral and personality traits influence the success of unintentional species introductions? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 27:57-64.

Chapple, D.G., S. M. Simmonds, and B.B.M. Wong. 2011. Know when to run, know when to hide: can behavioral differences explain the divergent invasion success of two sympatric lizards? Ecology and Evolution 1:278-289.

Colautti, R.I., I.A. Grigorovich, and H.J. MacIsaac. 2006. Propagule pressure: a null model for biological invasions. Biological Invasions 8:1023-1037.

Cote, J., S. Fogarty, K. Weinersmith, T. Brodin, and A. Sih. 2010. Personality traits and dispersal tendency in the invasive mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 277: 1571-1579.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Driloleirus macelfreshi lives!

This week marked the third anniversary of a significant scientific discovery made by my dogs.  We were out on a walk on a messy afternoon marked by mud, driving rain, and wind, courtesy of a Pacific winter storm.  Young dogs still need their walks, and so do their owners.  I can't really say quite how it happened, other than as I bent down to discharge my responsibility as a dog walker after my old dog had finished her business, I glanced back and saw the young one standing with a long pinkish stringy thing hanging from his jaws.  He looked quite pleased with himself, and was an instant away from flinging up his head and consuming his prize.  I witnessed this in the split second between discovery and annihilation. And somehow I knew that he absolutely must not be allowed to eat this thing, not for any risk to himself, but because of what it was. 

I leaped at him, howling at him to drop it, which is absolutely not how you are supposed to train a six-month old pup to surrender highly desired objects.  Fortunately for science, he was so shocked at my behavior he did drop it, and in his moment of indecision I swooped on his find and scooped it into a spare plastic bag.  The dog was utterly unimpressed at my inexusable theft of what he regarded as rightfully his.  There are times when I wonder whether he still remembers this.

At that time, however, we went home, and I laid the dog's find out on the counter.  It was an earthworm, and it measured four feet four inches long.  It was flabby, pale pinkish-gray, impossibly thin, and quite dead.  It was also the first specimen of the Oregon giant earthwormDriloleirus macelfreshi, to be documented in twenty-seven years.  We know very little about this species, other than it seems to be endemic to the wooded bottomlands of the Willamette Valley.  It had been pretty much assumed to be extinct.

There are many little pieces to this discovery, each of which made that sudden, instinctive recognition on my part possible.  Over a decade ago, I had the great fortune to meet two of the last earthworm taxonomists in the world, Dorothy McKey-Fender and her son, Bill Fender.  This in itself was a culmination of improbable circumstances, but the crux was a workshop, conducted by Dorothy who was then in her eighties, on how to identify native earthworms.  The workshop was followed by a search for native worms in 2000.

Bill Fender and Dorothy McKey-Fender with a specimen of Driloeirus macelfreshi in their laboratory in 2000.  Photo: D. K. Rosenberg

I know a little about earthworms, as much probably as any average gardener or curious naturalist knows.  Native worms have been largely replaced by exotic species, and most of the worms we see as we go about our daily lives are descendants of recent immigrants to this continent as most of us are.  Ecologically speaking, we do not even know what we've lost, because the native worm fauna has been very poorly studied and described.  We do know that different families of worms behave differently, and affect nutrient turnover and soil humus in different ways.  We do not understand all the implications, although they include reducing the humus layer, which is itself a vital habitat for many organisms, and allowing exotic weeds to establish on the surface of soil no longer protected by that deep blanket.  For the most part, though, we just don't know what we've broken or what pieces remain somewhat intact.

There are earthworms out there, native worms, very different from the nightcrawlers we all immediately identify as the ultimate worm.  Even more amazing, there happens to be a gigantic native worm called the Oregon giant earthworm, Driloleirus macelfreshi.  Dorothy McKey-Fender herself had studied most of the specimens that have ever been collected- a scant few dozen in all.  They were far too rare to allow the workshop participants to examine, but Dorothy moved around the lab room set up with dissecting scopes and trays filled with other worms pinned to the black wax, delighted to share some of the knowledge accumulated over a lifetime.  Her love and respect for these animals was palpable, and her excitement contagious.  I've been more aware of worms since then, for their own sake, not just for what they do.

So there we were, in a wet riparian forest at the tail end of a storm dumping heavy rains, swelling the Willamette River until it licked and curled at the bases of the cottonwood trees along its banks.  A party of several people and several dogs ahead of us had walked right by the corpse of the giant worm lying on a bed of fallen leaves, not far from the floodwater's edge.  I would not have noticed it either, if my young dog hadn't loved to eat dead things.  But at least in that instant of seeing it, I was open to the existence of giant native worms.  Without that, the discovery would not have been possible, even if I had still looked straight at my dog in that instant before he snatched and swallowed.

Looking for another giant worm- the last one was right around here somewhere...

The worm is now among those in the McKey-Fender collection, although a small segment of the tail sits in a vial on my desk for possible genetic analysis.  More importantly, we know we can still look along the rivers and woods and hope for more than we recently dared hope for, that one of the unique forms of life on this planet may still be with us.  If we can be open to those possibilities, I hope we can also be open to more creative visions of how to live more gently and equitably among all of our fellow species.