Urban specialization reduces habitat connectivity by a highly mobile wading bird

Figure 2. Observed and simulated ibis networks Claire used in her analysis.
Provided by Claire Teitelbaum.


Mobile animals transport nutrients and propagules across habitats, and are crucial for the functioning of food webs and for ecosystem services. Human activities such as urbanization can alter animal movement behavior, including site fidelity and resource use. Because many urban areas are adjacent to natural sites, mobile animals might connect natural and urban habitats. More generally, understanding animal movement patterns in urban areas can help predict how urban expansion will affect the roles of highly mobile animals in ecological processes.


Here, we examined movements by a seasonally nomadic wading bird, the American white ibis (Eudocimus albus), in South Florida, USA. White ibis are colonial wading birds that forage on aquatic prey; in recent years, some ibis have shifted their behavior to forage in urban parks, where they are fed by people. We used a spatial network approach to investigate how individual movement patterns influence connectivity between urban and non-urban sites. We built a network of habitat connectivity using GPS tracking data from ibis during their non-breeding season and compared this network to simulated networks that assumed individuals moved indiscriminately with respect to habitat type.


We found that the observed network was less connected than the simulated networks, that urban-urban and natural-natural connections were strong, and that individuals using urban sites had the least-variable habitat use. Importantly, the few ibis that used both urban and natural habitats contributed the most to connectivity.


Habitat specialization in urban-acclimated wildlife could reduce the exchange of propagules and nutrients between urban and natural areas, which has consequences both for beneficial effects of connectivity such as gene flow and for detrimental effects such as the spread of contaminants or pathogens.

Claire S. Teitelbaum, Jeffrey Hepinstall-Cymerman, Anjelika Kidd-Weaver, Sonia M. Hernandez, Sonia Altizer, Richard J. Hall. Urban specialization reduces habitat connectivity by a highly mobile wading bird. Movement Ecology 8, 49 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40462-020-00233-7

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

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

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.

Incorporating spatial synchrony in the status assessment of a threatened species with multivariate analysis

A painting of the study organism, the Amber Darter (Percina antesella). Artist: Carol Yang.

Spatial synchrony—correlated abundance fluctuations among distinct populations—is associated with increased extinction risk but is not a component of widely-used extinction risk assessments (e.g., IUCN Red List, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Species Status Assessment). Alongside traditional viability metrics (i.e., the number of populations, their spatial extent, the status of each population), consideration of spatial synchrony in these assessments may provide additional insight into extinction risk as well as the relative importance of intrinsic and extrinsic factors on population dynamics. We demonstrate a method for estimating abundance trends in populations of the endangered freshwater fish, the amber darter (Percina antesella), while simultaneously assessing empirical support for existence of spatial synchrony among its two populations in the Conasauga and Etowah rivers in Georgia, U.S.A. Our analysis was performed using multivariate autoregressive state-space (MARSS) models with annual sampling data from 1996 to 2018 at 16 sites distributed between the two rivers. Our results indicate that amber darter populations have declined substantially, with 9% annual losses in both the Conasauga and Etowah rivers, suggesting rangewide imperilment. Furthermore, model selection indicated little support for models with fully independent dynamics between rivers, which may compound overall extinction risk. This analysis demonstrates the utility of tools such as MARSS models for assessing spatial synchrony and long-term population trajectories of imperiled species, resulting in improved vulnerability assessments that do not assume independence among separate populations.

Stowe, E.S., Wenger, S.J., Freeman, M.C. and Freeman, B.J., 2020. Incorporating spatial synchrony in the status assessment of a threatened species with multivariate analysis. Biological Conservation248, p.108612. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108612

Spatial and temporal variation in nest temperatures forecasts sex ratio skews in a crocodilian with environmental sex determination

Picture: Samantha Bock

Check out this news article, “Why baby alligators in some spots could be 98% female by century’s end” in Nature covering the research!

Species displaying temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) are especially vulnerable to the effects of a rapidly changing global climate due to their profound sensitivity to thermal cues during development. Predicting the consequences of climate change for these species, including skewed offspring sex ratios, depends on understanding how climatic factors interface with features of maternal nesting behaviour to shape the developmental environment. Here, we measure thermal profiles in 86 nests at two geographically distinct sites in the northern and southern regions of the American alligator’s (Alligator mississippiensis) geographical range, and examine the influence of both climatic factors and maternally driven nest characteristics on nest temperature variation. Changes in daily maximum air temperatures drive annual trends in nest temperatures, while variation in individual nest temperatures is also related to local habitat factors and microclimate characteristics. Without any compensatory nesting behaviours, nest temperatures are projected to increase by 1.6–3.7°C by the year 2100, and these changes are predicted to have dramatic consequences for offspring sex ratios. Exact sex ratio outcomes vary widely depending on site and emission scenario as a function of the unique temperature-by-sex reaction norm exhibited by all crocodilians. By revealing the ecological drivers of nest temperature variation in the American alligator, this study provides important insights into the potential consequences of climate change for crocodilian species, many of which are already threatened by extinction.

Bock SL, Lowers RH, Rainwater TR, Stolen E, Drake JM, Wilkinson PM, Weiss S, Back B, Guillette Jr L, Parrott BB. Spatial and temporal variation in nest temperatures forecasts sex ratio skews in a crocodilian with environmental sex determination. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 2020 May 13;287(1926): 20200210.

A comparison of diversity estimators applied to a database of host–parasite associations

Figure provided by Claire Teitelbaum

Understanding the drivers of biodiversity is important for forecasting changes in the distribution of life on earth. However, most studies of biodiversity are limited by uneven sampling effort, with some regions or taxa better sampled than others. Numerous methods have been developed to account for differences in sampling effort, but most methods were developed for systematic surveys in which all study units are sampled using the same design and assemblages are sampled randomly. Databases compiled from multiple sources, such as from the literature, often violate these assumptions because they are composed of studies that vary widely in their goals and methods. Here, we compared the performance of several popular methods for estimating parasite diversity based on a large and widely used parasite database, the Global Mammal Parasite Database (GMPD). We created artificial datasets of host–parasite interactions based on the structure of the GMPD, then used these datasets to evaluate which methods best control for differential sampling effort. We evaluated the precision and bias of seven methods, including species accumulation and nonparametric diversity estimators, compared to analyzing the raw data without controlling for sampling variation. We find that nonparametric estimators, and particularly the Chao2 and second‐order jackknife estimators, perform better than other methods. However, these estimators still perform poorly relative to systematic sampling, and effect sizes should be interpreted with caution because they tend to be lower than actual effect sizes. Overall, these estimators are more effective in comparative studies than for producing true estimates of diversity. We make recommendations for future sampling strategies and statistical methods that would improve estimates of global parasite diversity.

Also highlighted on UGA’s Center for the Ecology of Infectious Disease website.

Teitelbaum, C.S., Amoroso, C.R., Huang, S., Davies, T.J., Rushmore, J., Drake, J.M., Stephens, P.R., Byers, J.E., Majewska, A.A. and Nunn, C.L. (2020), A comparison of diversity estimators applied to a database of host–parasite associations. Ecography. doi:10.1111/ecog.05143

City sicker? A meta‐analysis of wildlife health and urbanization

Photo Credit: Maureen Murray

Urban development can alter resource availability, land use, and community composition, which, in turn, influences wildlife health. Generalizable relationships between wildlife health and urbanization have yet to be quantified and could vary across different measures of health and among species. We present a phylogenetic meta‐analysis of 516 comparisons of the toxicant loads, parasitism, body condition, or stress of urban and non‐urban wildlife populations reported in 106 studies spanning 81 species in 30 countries. We found a small but significant negative relationship between urbanization and wildlife health, driven by considerably higher toxicant loads and greater parasite abundance, greater parasite diversity, and/or greater likelihood of infection by parasites transmitted through close contact. Invertebrates and amphibians were particularly affected, with urban populations having higher toxicant loads and greater physiological stress than their non‐urban counterparts. We also found strong geographic and taxonomic bias in research effort, highlighting future research needs. Our results suggest that some types of health risks are more pronounced for wildlife in urban areas, which could have important implications for conservation.

Murray, M. H., C. A. Sánchez, D. J. Becker, K. A. Byers, K. E. Worsley‐Tonks, and M. E. Craft. 2019. City sicker? A meta-analysis of wildlife health and urbanization. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2126
Read about this article in The Conversation.

Microclimate and larval habitat density predict adult Aedes Albopictus abundance in urban areas

The Asian tiger mosquito, , transmits several arboviruses of public health importance, including chikungunya and dengue. Since its introduction to the United States in 1985, the species has invaded more than 40 states, including temperate areas not previously at risk of -transmitted arboviruses. Mathematical models incorporate climatic variables in predictions of site-specific abundances to identify human populations at risk of disease. However, these models rely on coarse resolutions of environmental data that may not accurately represent the climatic profile experienced by mosquitoes in the field, particularly in climatically heterogeneous urban areas. In this study, we pair field surveys of larval and adult mosquitoes with site-specific microclimate data across a range of land use types to investigate the relationships between microclimate, density of larval habitat, and adult mosquito abundance and determine whether these relationships change across an urban gradient. We find no evidence for a difference in larval habitat density or adult abundance between rural, suburban, and urban land classes. Adult abundance increases with increasing larval habitat density, which itself is dependent on microclimate. Adult abundance is strongly explained by microclimate variables, demonstrating that theoretically derived, laboratory-parameterized relationships in ectotherm physiology apply to the field. Our results support the continued use of temperature-dependent models to predict abundance in urban areas.

Full text: https://doi.org/10.4269/ajtmh.19-0220

Evans, M. V., C. W. Hintz, L. Jones, J. Shiau, N. Solano, J. M. Drake, and C. C. Murdock. 2019. Microclimate and larval habitat density redict adult Aedes albopictus abundance in urban areas. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.