Kaylee earns best talk award at ESA!

Our very own Kaylee Arnold won best talk for her presentation, “The gut microbial diversity of a Chagas disease vector varies across coinfection status throughout central Panama” in the Medical, Urban, & Veterinary Entomology section of the Entomological Society of America at their annual meeting. Read below for her abstract. Congratulations, Kaylee!

Kaylee’s study organism, the triatomine or kissing bug. Picture provided by Linda Tanner via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Chagas disease is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi that is carried in the guts of hematophagous triatomine vectors. Triatomines are often coinfected with the parasite T. rangeli, which is non-pathogenic to mammals but can reduce fitness of their triatomine hosts. This study examined the gut microbial diversity of T. cruzi infected, coinfected, and uninfected triatomines (n = 288) throughout central Panama. We hypothesized that single and coinfected triatomines would have greater gut microbial diversity than uninfected individuals due to pathogen-microbe interactions within the gut, which can facilitate the proliferation of less dominant bacterial taxa.

Coinfections were found in 13% of individuals (40/288) and there was significantly greater alpha diversity in coinfected individuals when compared to both single and uninfected samples (Dunn’s test of multiple comparisons, p < 0.001). Furthermore, single T. cruzi infections were found in 34% of sampled individuals (91/288) and also displayed significantly greater alpha diversity when compared to uninfected individuals (Kruskal-Wallis H test, p < 0.001). Across all samples, Sphingomonas was the most dominant taxa, and decreased in relative abundance compared to uninfected individuals. Finally, the beta diversity across infected samples was significantly different compared to uninfected samples (PERMANOVA p = 0.001 using Bray-Curtis dissimilarity). These results highlight patterns of microbial diversity which may be impacted by vector infection status and will be important to consider when developing vector control strategies.

Lexi Kenna defends Master’s Thesis!

Congratulations, Lexi! Here is the abstract of her thesis, entitled Invertebrate herbivory of understory trees in the Georgia Piedmont in response to soil warming:

As the global mean surface temperature increases, changes in biogeochemical cycling have the potential to have cascading effects on plant and invertebrate interactions. Previous warming studies have primarily been conducted in recently glaciated, more fertile soils, and the response of plant and invertebrate interactions to warming is unclear in lower latitude, less fertile soils of the Georgia Piedmont. In this study, I examined leaf and soil chemistry (%N, C:N) and herbivore damage (% leaf area consumed) from understory tree seedlings of the Georgia Piedmont. Carbon and nitrogen foliar content and invertebrate herbivory did not respond to warming in any year, but there were interactive effects of temperature and species. Overall, warming did not have an indirect effect on plant-herbivore interactions, which is likely due to Piedmont soils containing less available nitrogen. However, species-level variation in response to warming has implications for forest composition changes.

Identifying correlates of Guinea worm (Dracunculus medinensis) infection in domestic dog populations

Figure 1. Map of spatial hotspots of Dmedinensis infection in dogs.

The eradication of human infectious diseases has proven remarkably difficult. The world has only succeeded once, in the case of the smallpox virus. However, international efforts have driven the debilitating Guinea worm parasite closer to the brink of eradication than nearly any other parasite. Coordinated efforts by the Ministries of Health in endemic countries, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, The Carter Center, and the World Health Organization have reduced the number of annual Guinea worm cases from millions in the 1980s to hundreds in the early 2010s, but recently a new threat has emerged. Guinea worm infections have been diagnosed in domestic dogs, particularly in the Republic of Chad, and numbers of infections have continued to increase. As in many countries where dracunculiasis is endemic, the campaign for eradication in Chad has focused intervention measures on interrupting transmission among humans, so infection in dogs jeopardizes eradication efforts. In this study, we used machine learning methods to identify demographic, geographic, and climatic factors associated with the presence of Guinea worm-infected dogs at the village level, and spatial clustering of dog cases regionally. A combination of demographic, geographic and climatic factors were important correlates of infection at the village level, but the importance of these factors varied between northern and southern populations of the parasite. At the larger village cluster level, the geographic position and climate of a village were most important. Some of our findings, including the importance of fishing villages and the difference in correlates between northern and southern villages can be used by researchers to guide additional data collection and by public health workers to better target eradication efforts. More generally, this work contributes to a broader understanding of the spatial patterning of multi-host infectious diseases of humans and animals.

Richards RL, Cleveland CA, Hall RJ, Tchindebet Ouakou P, Park AW, Ruiz-Tiben E, Weiss A, Yabsley MJ, Ezenwa VO. Identifying correlates of Guinea worm (Dracunculus medinensis) infection in domestic dog populations. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. 2020 Sep 14;14(9):e0008620. https://journals.plos.org/plosntds/article?id=10.1371/journal.pntd.0008620

Laura Rack defends Ecology Master’s Thesis

Written by Mikey Fager, OSE undergraduate and Rosemond lab member

Humans and aquatic biota both rely heavily on the many services that river and stream systems provide. Water managers and conservation scientists need to determine the possible effects that increases in the frequency and duration of droughts due to climate change may have on ecosystem processes within these systems. Looking at the ways that different taxa in the systems respond to low-flow conditions can be immensely helpful in improving water infrastructure and management for both humans and aquatic organisms

Laura’s masters thesis research does just this, as she analyzed a variety of literature to assess how algae, invertebrates, and fishes respond to extended periods of low flow in streams and rivers, using the Upper Flint River Basin as her focal system. In the first two chapters, Laura hypothesized that algal biomasses would increase, while richness and density of aquatic invertebrates (particularly filter-feeders) and fish abundance would decrease during periods of low flows. She also outlined the different studies she would be reviewing for each taxonomic group, while noting the importance of considering study context such as stream size and average flow variation when drawing conclusions and discussing implications. Laura found that when low-flow events occur, abundance of algae generally increases, while the numbers of aquatic invertebrates and fishes tend to decline. She goes on to explain that droughts can lead to other events like loss of key plant species and warmer overall channel temperatures, which will likely compound the effects of low flows. Laura’s research expertly identifies the areas of concern that water managers, conservationists, and other stakeholders need to consider. Her work highlights essential research to be done towards understanding the explicit responses perennial systems have to low-flow events, in order for managers and ecologists alike to alleviate the stress that droughts may cause. 

Rack, L., 2020. Evaluating Low Streamflow Effects on Biota to Support Management in Perennial Systems. Master’s Thesis, University of Georgia.

Freshwater crabs (Decapoda: Pseudothelphusidae) increase rates of leaf breakdown in a neotropical headwater stream

  1. Freshwater crabs are the largest macroconsumers in many neotropical headwater streams, but few studies have examined their roles in ecosystem processes such as leaf litter breakdown. As omnivorous macroconsumers, freshwater crabs affect multiple trophic levels. They may directly increase leaf breakdown through fragmentation and consumption or indirectly decrease breakdown by consuming other macroinvertebrates, including shredders and detritivores.
  2. In a headwater stream in Monteverde, Costa Rica, we conducted an in‐stream experiment with 40 enclosures to quantify the effects of pseudothelphusid crabs on both leaf breakdown and macroinvertebrate colonisation of leaves. Half of the enclosures were randomly selected to contain two crabs (mean carapace width = 30 mm) and half were controls without crabs. We sampled mixed leaf packs from the enclosures on days 11, 19, 28, 34, and 42. We found the leaves of one species (Koanophyllon pittieri) almost completely decomposed by day 28 in both treatments (crab versus no crab). The other two leaf species (Meliosma idiopoda, Quercus brenesii) composed the remaining leaf mass at the end of the experiment.
  3. At 42 days, enclosures with crabs had faster rates of leaf breakdown than those without crabs (with crabs: k = −0.020; without crabs: k = −0.016; p = 0.034). This suggests that the magnitude of direct leaf breakdown by crabs, due to fragmentation, consumption, or manipulation of leaves, was greater than any indirect effects on leaf breakdown via crab consumption of other leaf‐consuming species.
  4. Macroinvertebrate composition based on taxa abundances or biomasses did not significantly differ between treatments (ANOSIM; p = 0.73 and p = 0.65, respectively). Shredder and detritivore abundances and biomasses increased significantly through time (ANOVA; p ≤ 0.001), but there was no evidence of an effect of crab presence (p > 0.2), nor were there significant interactions between crab presence and time (p > 0.3).
  5. This is one of the first studies to quantify the effects of pseudothelphusid freshwater crabs on leaf breakdown rates. Our results suggest that these crabs can play a significant role in detrital processing in neotropical headwater streams. This study has also demonstrated that short‐term enclosure experiments are useful in measuring in‐stream effects of crab activity on leaf breakdown.

Yang C, Wenger SJ, Rugenski AT, Wehrtmann IS, Connelly S, Freeman MC. Freshwater crabs (Decapoda: Pseudothelphusidae) increase rates of leaf breakdown in a neotropical headwater stream. Freshwater Biology. 2020;00:1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.13524

Neotropical freshwater crabs (Decapoda: Pseudothelphusidae) shred leaves

Photo provided by Carol Yang.

Freshwater crabs are macroconsumers that are commonly found in Neotropical headwater streams that may play a key role in energy flow and nutrient cycling in detrital food webs. Although studies have examined the feeding habits of trichodactylid crabs, little is known of this behavior in pseudothelphusid species, and specifically whether they actually consume leaf material. We conducted three nine-day laboratory trials with pseudothelphusid crabs (Ptychophallus tumimanus (Rathbun, 1898)) and leaves (Koanophyllon pittieri) to investigate whether crabs shred leaves. We hypothesized that leaf mass loss would be faster with crabs present relative to control tanks with only leaves. Leaf mass loss was significantly higher (p < 0.001) in tanks with crabs (0.49 ± 0.07 g, mean ± 1 SD) compared to control tanks (0.31 ± 0.05 g). We observed crabs manipulating, shredding, and consuming leaves, with leaf fragments and egesta present in tanks with crabs but not in control tanks. Their consumption and egestion activity may affect nutrient availability and transformation by stimulating microbial activity during leaf breakdown and converting coarse particulate organic matter (CPOM) to fine particulate organic matter (FPOM). Therefore, freshwater crabs need to be considered when studying energy flow and nutrient cycling in detrital food webs of Neotropical headwater streams.

Check out a video of the crabs shredding!

Yang C, Wehrtmann IS, Wenger SJ, Rugenski AT. Neotropical freshwater crabs (Decapoda: Pseudothelphusidae) shred leaves. Nauplius. 2020;28. https://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0104-64972020000100217&tlng=en

Ashley LaVere Defends M.S. Thesis

By Kate Sabey, Ezenwa Lab

Wild animals commonly experience trade-offs in their investment among different physiological processes, including reproduction, nutrition, and immune function. In particular, given its importance for pathogen defense, many studies have sought to measure when and why animals modulate their investment in immunity. However, since animals encounter a range of conditions in natural environments, the observation of these physiological trade-offs are likely shaped by a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

Through her masters thesis research, Ashley explored such context-dependence in immune dynamics. In her first chapter, she examined variation in relationships between testosterone and immunity in free-ranging American alligators, finding that the effects of testosterone on microbial killing depended on levels of co-circulating hormones, the microbe of interest, and temperature. In her second chapter, Ashley further explored relationships between immune performance and temperature across vertebrate species, finding that the effects of temperature on immune performance depended on host thermoregulation strategy. For example, ectotherms experienced trade-offs between immune performance at the host’s optimal temperature and the consistency of immune performance across temperatures, but these trade-offs were absent in endotherms. Together, Ashley’s work emphasizes the importance of considering both intrinsic and extrinsic variation when assessing the immune performance of wild vertebrates. Importantly, accounting for this context-dependence will be crucial in understanding the relevance of physiological trade-offs across animal systems.

Congratulations, Ashley!

Kate Sabey awarded P.E.O. Scholar Award

Kate Sabey, a PhD Candidate in the Ezenwa Lab and an IDEAS Trainee, was selected as a P.E.O. Scholar. Kate’s research focuses on the relationship between the gut microbiome and infection status of wild African ungulates, using disease ecology and genomic approaches. After completing her dissertation work through the Department of Infectious Diseases, Kate will proceed with veterinary medicine training as part of her dual DVM-PhD degree. Well done, Kate!

See the post from the UGA Graduate School here.

Oconee Rivers Audubon Society’s “Binoculars for Young Black Birders” Fundraiser Success

During the week of June 1st, EcoReach participated in the inaugural #BlackBirdersWeek on social media, which Kaylee Arnold co-organized. This movement was started by @BlackAFinSTEM on Twitter in response to the video of a white woman who called the police on birdwatcher (or “birder”) Christian Cooper after he requested that she follow regulations and leash her dog in Central Park. As America continues to grapple with systemic racism and violence following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and so many others, it has also been highlighted that Black people face unique challenges and discrimination in the field of Ecology or when out in nature, even while doing something as simple as bird watching or going outside for a jog.

Inspired by these events, EcoReach and other OSE members teamed up with Lilly Branch Audubon Society to support the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society’s “Binoculars for Young Black Birders,” a binoculars drive to support young, Black birders in Athens-Clarke County. In just under a few weeks, we raised nearly $20,000 from GoFundMe donations and direct donations to Oconee Rivers Audubon Society (ORAS). With this money, EcoReach is currently working with Clarke County School District (CCSD) to provide individual binoculars and local bird guides to every K-12 Black student in CCSD that would like a pair as well as provide additional binoculars and guides to each CCSD science teacher to use in their classrooms. Lack of access to equipment, such as binoculars, results in substantial inequitable access to outdoor activities and outdoor education. By providing students with their own binoculars and field guides, we can help remove one of the many barriers Black students may face in regards to participating in outdoor activities that so many of us enjoy and take for granted. 

See the campaign here.

Ignoring temperature variation leads to underestimation of the temperature sensitivity of plant litter decomposition

Figure provided by Nate Tomaczyk

The majority of terrestrial net primary production decomposes, fueling detrital food webs and converting dead plant carbon to atmospheric CO 2. There is considerable interest in determining the sensitivity of this process to climate warming. A common approach has been to use spatial gradients in temperature (i.e., latitude or elevation) to estimate temperature sensitivity. However, these studies typically relate decomposition rates to average temperatures at each site along such gradients, ignoring within‐site temperature variation. To evaluate the potential effects of temperature variation on estimates of temperature sensitivity, we simulated plant litter decomposition using both randomly generated and real time series of temperature. This simulation approach illustrated how temperature variation leads to higher decomposition rates at a given mean temperature than is predicted from simulations in which temperature is held constant. Increases in decomposition rate were most evident at cooler sites, where temporal variation in temperature tends to be greater than at warmer sites. This unbalanced effect of temperature variation shifted the slope of the relationships between average temperature and decomposition rate, resulting in lower estimated temperature sensitivities than were used to simulate decomposition. For example, estimates of activation energy (a) were as much as 0.15 eV lower than the true a when decomposition was simulated with the true a set to the canonical respiration value of 0.65 eV . We found that the estimated a was lower than the true a for surface, soil, and air temperatures, but not for stream temperatures, for which there was only a weak relationship between temperature variation and mean temperature. Our results suggest that commonly used methods may underestimate the temperature dependence of litter decomposition, particularly in terrestrial environments. We encourage publication of temperature data that include variation estimates and suggest an alternative method for calculating temperature sensitivity that accounts for variation in temperature.

Tomczyk NJ, Rosemond AD, Bumpers PM, Cummins CS, Wenger SJ, Benstead JP. Ignoring temperature variation leads to underestimation of the temperature sensitivity of plant litter decomposition. Ecosphere. 2020 Feb;11(2):e03050. doi: 10.1002/ecs2.3050.