Endless Forms

Cutting edge news about discoveries in ecology, evolution and conservation.


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Obi’s Laser Goggles

Part of doing novel scientific research is using creativity to figure out how to measure and analyze things that no one has done before. While many outlets report the results of scientific studies, it is rare to see much reporting about the challenges, roadblocks, and innovative solutions (in other words, blood, sweat, and tears) involved in developing experimental methods. Sometimes, however, researchers do put in the extra effort to tell people about creative solutions they used to answer their study questions.

For example, this video tells the story of Eric Gutierrez, a former graduate student at Stanford University, who wanted to test some common models about how birds create lift during flight. To do so, however, he needed a parrotlet to fly through a field of lasers. This was a concern, of course: even if the lasers didn’t damage the bird’s eyes, the flashes might alter the behavior and movements that Gutierrez sought to measure.

Gutierrez was familiar with “laser goggles” designed to protect eyes from powerful light beams. So, his solution was to cut tiny circles out of human laser goggles and fashion them into a protective headset for his parrotlet (the bird is reportedly named Obi) to wear. Again, check out the video at this link to see his creation in action, and to learn about how his results have overturned common thinking about the mechanics of bird flight.

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The Trade Routes That Threaten Biodiversity – Video

We all know that human consumption drives habitat destruction, but do we know exactly what areas are hurt by specific industries and trade routes? A recent paper in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution sheds light on this issue by mapping the degree to which specific international trade routes affect biodiversity in “threat hotspots.” For example, which goods are causing the most problems for Madagascar, and where is the demand from those goods coming from?

To learn how the authors put together these maps, and the reasoning behind some surprises – why do the Brazilian highlands have a higher threat index than the Amazon? – check out this video.

 

 

Moran, D. and Kanemoto, K. 2017. Identifying species threat hotspots from global supply chains. Nature Ecology & Evolutiondoi:10.1038/s41559-016-0023.

 


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How Long Does It Take to Hatch a Dinosaur Egg?

Animals invest tremendous time and effort into their offspring, even before the youngsters take their first breaths. An elephant is typically pregnant for 23 months. Depending on the altitude, black alpine salamanders will gestate for two to three years before giving birth to live young. Sharks stay pregnant for up to 3.5 years. Even the humble velvet worm can carry its offspring for up to 15 months, and komodo dragon eggs take 7 to 8 months to incubate and hatch. All in all, building even a tiny organism is a huge time commitment.

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A very pregnant cat.

And birds? Birds have it relatively easy. Their eggs are ready to hatch after 11-85 days of incubation. Even the immense ostrich needs only 42 days – six weeks – of incubation time for its chicks to emerge and meet the world. This short developmental period is advantageous – rapid development minimizes time spent at especially vulnerable stages, and makes each individual offspring a less risky investment to its parents.

For example, if a predator kills an infant elephant on its first day of life, its mother just wasted two years of her life (and an enormous amount of energy) creating that individual, and won’t be able to have another one for over two more years. On the other hand, if something eats an ostrich chick, much less time has been lost, and a new one can be produced relatively quickly.

Birds are living dinosaurs, so many scientists assumed that bird and dinosaur eggs incubated at similar rates, after adjusting for size and other physical factors . If that were the case, dinosaur eggs would take 45-80 days[*]  to hatch (Carpenter 1999). That was all just an assumption based on extrapolating data, however – until recently, no one had actually tried to measure incubation times of embryonic dinosaurs.

How would you even going about such a study? First, you need some embryonic dinosaurs. While these aren’t incredibly common, they do exist. To be careful, you would probably want samples of dinosaurs covering as broad a size range as possible. You would also need a way to determine daily growth rate of the embryos.

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Embryonic Protoceratops. Photo credit: AMNH / M. Ellison

While all of that may seem like a tall order, it is precisely what a group of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, Florida State University, and the University of Calgary have done. They acquired fossils of embryonic young from two species spanning a good portion of dinosaur egg size spectrum: Protoceratops, with eggs weighing in at less than half a pound (0.23 kg), and Hypacrosaurus, with eggs that can weigh almost 9 pounds (4 kg). (For reference, an ostrich egg weighs around 3 pounds, or 1.4 kg).

These embryonic specimens had emerging teeth that featured “lines of von Ebner“, which function essentially like the growth rings on a tree. Each line is a record of the daily mineralization of a developing embryo’s teeth. If you count the number of these lines on a dinosaur’s tooth, you have a record of the number of days that tooth had been developing. Teeth don’t erupt at the very start of incubation, so the researchers used information from tooth emergence time in other reptiles to estimate how long the egg had been developing before tooth mineralization began.

The results of Erickson and colleagues’ analyses showed that dinosaur eggs developed at less than half the rate of bird eggs. The smaller Protoceratops egg would take around 40 days to hatch if it developed at the same rate as a bird, but fossil evidence suggests that it took around 83 days. Similarly, the much larger Hypacrosaurus would only need 82 days to hatch at a birdlike rate, but the dental analysis showed that it actually took a whopping 171 days – over five and a half months.

This study has overturned a long-held assumption about one of dinosaur’s most fundamental life history traits: developmental time. So, what does that mean for our understanding of dinosaurs, of how they lived, of what they were? The implications are both broad and deep. With an empirical way to estimate developmental time, scientists will be able to move forward with much more accurate estimates of dinosaur generation times, reproductive investment, lifespans, metabolism, and even nonavian dinosaur extinction.

Today, many of the world’s most endangered animals are those with relatively long generation times, because they require sustained periods of time to recover from population declines. Could the ponderous incubation period required by dinosaurs have put them at a similar disadvantage?  Eggs are incredibly vulnerable objects, and if nonavian dinosaurs required significantly longer periods of time in egg form than avian dinosaurs, that could also help to explain why the latter group survived to the present day, while the others died out at the end of the Cretaceous. Much more research and many more insights and discoveries will likely stem from this work, but for now, we know that dinosaurs had to protect and watch over their eggs for far longer than previously thought.

References

Carpenter, K. 1996. Dinosaur eggs and babies. Cambridge University Press. New York.

Erickson, G. M., Zelenitsky, D. K., Kay, D. I., and Norell, M. A. 2017. Dinosaur incubation periods directly determined from growth-line counts in embryonic teeth how reptilian-grade development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists. 114(3):540-545. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1613716114

[*] If that number seems small, keep in mind that dinosaur egg size wasn’t necessarily proportional to dinosaur body size. There are physiological constraints on how big an egg can be while still diffusing gases between the membranes and shell efficiently. Dinosaurs laid large clutches of small eggs, and the largest eggs known are less than five times the size of an ostrich egg. Even the one hundred ton Titanosaur laid eggs less than two meters in diameter.


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Giraffe Necks: A Tall Tale

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Photo by Anne-Marie Hodge

When the giraffe was first discovered by Europeans, some speculated that it was the result of a cross between a camel and a leopard — hence the Latin name of the northern giraffe: Giraffa camelopardalis. The giraffe is a unique creature in many ways, but the origin of its elongated neck has long served as fodder for many “just-so” stories. Rudyard Kipling used it as a metaphor for self-improvement. Countless biology textbooks use it as the default example for Lamarck’s theory of evolution via inheritance of acquired characteristics. The lengthy neck has provided endless opportunities for comic relief in cartoons and illustrations.

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Photo by Anne-Marie Hodge

Amongst all of speculation as to why any reasonable species would develop such an extreme feature, two hypotheses predominate: 1) Giraffe necks elongated in a co-evolutionary dynamic with Acacia trees, their main food source, as each tried to gain the upper hand in the herbivore-plant war; or 2) long necks are the result of sexual selection, akin to peacock tails, that result in more successful mate acquisition for longer-necked individuals—either because female giraffes think long necks are sexy or because males use them as weapons to compete for mates. It also could have been a combination of both, or long necks could have enhanced capacities for thermoregulation, vigilance for predators . . . or something else. The debate continues.

The giraffe’s neck actually contains the same number of cervical (neck) vertebrae found in nearly all other mammals. What has not been thoroughly explored, however, is the rate at which these vertebrae develop relative to other parts of the giraffe’s body, including its head and overall body mass.

Giraffes are swift, strong, and stunning creatures, but they still look comically disproportionate to many humans. They don’t start out like that, however: giraffes are not born with exceptionally long necks, and their cervicals don’t begin to extend rapidly until later in life. But just how rapidly, relative to the rest of the body? Is there a difference between male and female growth patterns? What can the answers to these questions tell us about the evolutionary roots of the giraffe’s long neck?

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Photo by Anne-Marie Hodge

These questions motivated a group of biologists from the University of Wyoming and the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies at the University of Pretoria to investigate growth patterns of the necks and heads of giraffes (Mitchell et al. 2013). The scientists analyzed numerous morphological measurements in order to determine whether neck growth scaled “allometrically” with head and body growth—ie, whether the neck remained at a consistent size ratio with the rest of the giraffe’s parts, or whether a giraffe goes through an “awkward teen phase” with proportions that are skewed relative to those of adults. The researchers also compared growth patterns between males and females and examined sexual dimorphism (differences in appearance, size, etc between the sexes) to determine whether developmental patterns differ between males and females.

It turns out that there is no significant difference between male and female giraffes in neck growth rate (measured by both neck mass and neck length), but that in both sexes the neck length did increase at a faster rate than body mass. The rates of neck and body growth rates are similar in youngsters, but the necks outpace body mass once puberty hits, elongating out of proportion to the growth of the rest of the body.

In other words, there is now scientific evidence that giraffes go through a gangly teenage stage.

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Young giraffe. Photo by Anne-Marie Hodge

Interestingly, a giraffe’s head actually grows at a slower rate than its overall body mass. Males did end up with slightly heavier heads and necks, due to thicker ossicones and skull bones. The researchers attribute this to basic differences in sex steroid levels, and males have a much longer total growth period during their lives than do females. These factors underlie the slight male:female body size differential found in most mammals.

Giraffe head and neck growth rates and the ratio of neck mass to total body mass both remained similar between the sexes, meaning that they differ a bit in size but not proportion. This low degree of sexual dimorphism in skull and neck proportions has important implications for our understanding of giraffe evolution and biology. If giraffe necks had developed due to pressures from one form of sexual selection, we would expect to find one sex (amongst mammals, it would typically be the males) with profoundly more extreme features. In one form of sexual selection, these extreme features would provide the basis for the other sex (typically the females, sorry guys) to choose a mate from their array of suitors based on display characteristics of some sort. In the other type of sexual selection, male giraffes would use their massive necks to battle for access to mates. The females themselves would exhibit little aesthetic choosiness and would just mate with the males that were the most successful at winning fights.

Many people have probably seen documentary footage of giraffes engaging in dramatic bouts of “necking”, in which they appear to fight by swinging their long necks and heavy heads at each other like weapons. On the surface, this seems like it may indicate sexual selection via male competition, and yet Mitchell et al. point out that studies have shown that large males rarely participate in these activities, and it’s more often immature males with female-like head and neck sizes that do all of the “fighting” in order to establish a dominance hierarchy. Most importantly, the winners of the fights don’t go on to acquire more mates (Pratt & Anderson 1982).

The takeaway message from this study is that although giraffes possess an extremely exaggerated feature, the lack of difference between males and females tells us that it’s unlikely this was due to sexual selection. This makes it much more likely that some form of enhanced resource utilization or physiological efficiency was the mechanism for neck elongation over evolutionary time.

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Photo by Anne-Marie Hodge 

The issue is far from resolved, however. There have been noteworthy criticisms of the main two theories regarding the evolution of giraffe necks. Some studies have suggested that giraffes rarely browse at the full height that their necks can reach (Young & Isbell 1991). Also, in order to “out-reach” other browsers, they would only need a neck that was two meters long, not five meters, and being that high off the ground actually makes it harder to see predators such as lions that slink along the ground (Cameron & Du Toit 2005). Conversely, although Cameron & Du Toit (2007) found that 57% of the forage consumed by giraffes grew below 2 meters, i.e. in the height range of other herbivores, they suggest that the giraffe’s long neck allows it exclusive access leaves in the center of shrubs and bushes by reaching down from above. All of this will require broader and deeper investigation, of course, and in the end it is likely that the selective pressure that have produced such long necks is attributable to more than one precise factor.

Although it is most famous for its long neck, the giraffe exhibits an array of highly specialized features, and Mitchell et al. review a few fun facts about giraffe morphology. For example, relative to total cranial mass, the sinus cavities of giraffes are massive relative to those of other artiodactyls, allowing the development of such an enormous head without a debilitatingly heavy skull. In addition, the cervical vertebrae close to the head are lighter than those lower in the neck, further decreasing the mechanical stress of holding a head that high on a neck that long. The occipital condyles, bony projections that allow the head to rotate on the neck, have such a wide range of motion that the giraffe can actually partially lay the top of its head along its neck while feeding, a sort of reverse flamingo strategy. Fancy, no?

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(Gratuitous photo of me “kissing” a giraffe in Nairobi).

Sources:

Cameron, E.Z. & du Toit, J.T. (2005). Social influences on vigilance behaviour in giraffes, Giraffa camelopardalis. Anim. Behav. 69, 1337–1344.

Mitchell, G., Roberts, D., van Sittert, S. & Skinner, J. D. (2013). Growth patterns and masses of the heads and necks of male and female giraffes. Journal of Zoology. 290, 49–57. doi:10.1111/jzo.12013

Pratt, D.M. & Anderson, V.H. (1982). Population, distribu- tion, and behaviour of giraffe in the Arusha National Park, Tanzania. J. Nat. Hist. 16, 481–489.

Young, T.P. & Isbell, L.A. (1991). Sex differences in giraffe feeding ecology: energetic and social constraints. Ethology 87, 79–89.