Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

On behalf of myself and my research laboratory, I wish you all (PhD-students, undergraduates, postdocs and senior collaborators) a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Although the official celebration of the "Darwin Year" is now over, for us evolutionary biologists every year will indeed be another "Darwin Year", including 2010. I am looking forward to some exciting new research news, both in this lab and in the scientific community as a whole. Take care!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

WWDD (What Would Darwin Do?)

Hello Everyone! On this blog we've discussed the value of publishing in Open Access journals at least a couple times, and it general the idea has received strong support (including from me, if I remember correctly). Alan Moore (who was Tom's Ph.D. opponent) just published an article in support society-based journals. As a long-term member of many societies, I found Moore's article spoke to many things that are important to me, and he makes excellent points. For example, someone always pays, even if the article is freely available. More importantly, supporting societies has a lot of academic and cultural value. We all enjoy and benefit from the ESEB meetings, and from the promotion of science (in the USA, we need all the help we can get getting facts about Evolution out!!!!!!). Another interesting point: we provide free reviews to support academic societies (a reasonable volunteer contribution), but we also provide free reviews to open access, society-less journals, and are thereby padding the bottom line of the publishing industry (people who almost certainly make more money than I do). Why do this expert service for free for industry? I may not review for society-less journals any longer, unless they pay me.

I remember a couple years ago there was a talk at Lund about Open Access and its virtues from the perspective of a librarian. It was an excellent, convincing talk, and I enjoyed it. Afterwards, someone asked about the societies and how they fit into this. The answer, which did not satisfy me, was that they'd have to "do something else" (I'm quoting from long memory here -- at any rate, the response was terse and unsympathetic to the concerns of society-based journals). I agree with Moore that the academic societies are of extraordinary value to us as researchers and academics (more than most realize, I would venture), and deserving of our support in terms of finances and as a first choice when be publish.

Now, let me cover my head and run....

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On ecological speciation, tempo and mode of evolution

The coming week's lab-meeting (16 December 2009), will be the last one for 2009. Due to teaching obligations, I would like the meeting to start somewhat later than usual, at 10.30. The topic of this week's lab-meeting will be speciation, and we will discuss two papers published in 2009 in and Nature and Science (abstracts are provided below):

Phylogenies reveal new interpretation of speciation and the Red Queen

Chris Venditti1, Andrew Meade1 & Mark Pagel1,2

(Nature advance online publication)

Evidence for Ecological Speciation and Its Alternative

Schluter Dolph

Science (2009) 323: 737-741

These two papers are interesting, because they reflect radically different views on the causes of speciation and the drivers of speciation processes. I therefore thought it would be interesting to discuss them with this in mind, and contrast their different underlying viewpoints against each other. Who is correct and who is wrong? Or are both correct, and if so, in what domains?

We will thus meet at 10.30 in "Darwin" on Wednesday 16 December. Any fika-volunteer?

Abstracts follow below:

Chris Venditti1, Andrew Meade1 & Mark Pagel1,2

Phylogenies reveal new interpretation of speciation and the Red Queen

The Red Queen1 describes a view of nature in which species continually evolve but do not become better adapted. It is one of the more distinctive metaphors of evolutionary biology, but no test of its claim that speciation occurs at a constant rate2 has ever been made against competing models that can predict virtually identical outcomes, nor has any mechanism been proposed that could cause the constant-rate phenomenon. Here we use 101 phylogenies of animal, plant and fungal taxa to test the constant-rate claim against four competing models. Phylogenetic branch lengths record the amount of time or evolutionary change between successive events of speciation. The models predict the distribution of these lengths by specifying how factors combine to bring about speciation, or by describing how rates of speciation vary throughout a tree. We find that the hypotheses that speciation follows the accumulation of many small events that act either multiplicatively or additively found support in 8% and none of the trees, respectively. A further 8% of trees hinted that the probability of speciation changes according to the amount of divergence from the ancestral species, and 6% suggested speciation rates vary among taxa. By comparison, 78% of the trees fit the simplest model in which new species emerge from single events, each rare but individually sufficient to cause speciation. This model predicts a constant rate of speciation, and provides a new interpretation of the Red Queen: the metaphor of species losing a race against a deteriorating environment is replaced by a view linking speciation to rare stochastic events that cause reproductive isolation. Attempts to understand species-radiations3 or why some groups have more or fewer species should look to the size of the catalogue of potential causes of speciation shared by a group of closely related organisms rather than to how those causes combine.

Schluter Dolph

Natural selection commonly drives the origin of species, as Darwin initially claimed. Mechanisms of speciation by selection fall into two broad categories: ecological and mutation-order. Under ecological speciation, divergence is driven by divergent natural selection between environments, whereas under mutation-order speciation, divergence occurs when different mutations arise and are fixed in separate populations adapting to similar selection pressures. Tests of parallel evolution of reproductive isolation, trait-based assortative mating, and reproductive isolation by active selection have demonstrated that ecological speciation is a common means by which new species arise. Evidence for mutation-order speciation by natural selection is more limited and has been best documented by instances of reproductive isolation resulting from intragenomic conflict. However, we still have not identified all aspects of selection, and identifying the underlying genes for reproductive isolation remains challenging.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

No lab-meeting this week (9/12)

Due to several other meetings and committments on my side, I am afraid we'll have to cancel the planned lab-meeting this Wednesday (9 December). I will be present in the Ecology Building the whole day, however, in case you need to talk to me in between the meetings. I hope we can have a regular lab-meeting the next week, before the Christmas break (16 December), in case everybody is around then. Please do not hesitate to e-mail me with suggestions for papers to read and discuss!

Friday, December 4, 2009

On scientific "peer-review"

You got to watch this, it is wonderful! Needless to say, in my position as professor and PI, I often identify myself with AH. Enjoy and watch this funny video!

Monday, November 30, 2009

New lab-publication about intralocus sexual conflict in polymorphic damselflies

Former PhD-student Jessica Abott and I have a forthcoming article ("Early view") in Evolutionary Ecology Research (EER) that might be of interest. It deals with intersexual genetic correlations in different female colour morphs of the damselfly Ischnura elegans, that we have studied intensively in our lab over the last ten years.

These intersexual genetic correlations differ significantly between the different female morphs, the most striking pattern being higher intersexual genetic correlations ("more male-like") in the androchrome (male-mimicking) female morph. The paper can be found here, and the title is "Morph-specific intersexual genetic correlations in an intraspecific mimicry system". Enjoy!

New ads from Google

You will note that I have now added ads from Google's AdSense, and I encourage you to click on these as often as you can! The reason is that the blogg will earn some revenue each time you click on these adds, something which is clearly needed these days of shrinking funding. When the governmental funding agencies shrink, we will have to rely on the market!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lab-meeting on November 25: signalling sexual and species identity

On Wednesday (November 25), I was thinking that we should do two things during our weekly lab-meeting:

1. We will start by discussing the Nature-paper by Billeter et al. of how Drosophila males and females signal sex and species identity using pheromones ("CHC:s").

Tom Gosden wrote about this paper in an earlier bloggpost, and it seems quite exciting also to those of us who are not particularly interested in pheromone communication. Signalling sex and species identity is clearly a general problem of interest to many evolutionary biologists, and not only those working with Drosophila. The paper can be downloaded here.

2. We will also give Anna Runemark som input on her "half-time seminar" that will take place next week at the Animal Ecology department meeting. Anna brings her laptop and some idéas of her presentation, and the rest of us provide feedback to help her.

Same time and place as usual: "Darwin"-room at 10.00, Wednesday November 25. Any fika-volunteer?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An exciting week with the phenotype in the centre of focus: Thesis nailing, lab-meeting (18 November) and dissertation

We have an exciting week in front of us, starting with the nailing of Fabrice Eroukhmanoffs PhD-thesis on Monday 16 October at 15.00. This ceremony will take place at "The Oak" in the bottom floor of the Ecology Building, and drinks will of course be served. Hope to see you all there!

On Wednesday (18 November), we will have our regular lab-meeting in "Darwin" at 10.00. Fabrice will show his Powerpoint-presentation to get some last feedback before the thesis defence on Friday 20 November. We will also discuss a recent paper by David Houle in the journal PNAS, where he suggests that time is now mature for the formation of a new scientific field: "Phenomics". After all the other "-omics"-revolutions in biology (genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics), Houle suggests that we should now return to the most interesting unit of evolution, and what made most of us interested in biology in the first place: The Phenotype. In spite of all the many advances in genomics and other reductionistic fields in molecular biology, our knowledge about how phenotypes evolve, and how they should be measured and quantified is still quite limited. Hopefully, this paper will open up our eyes for a bright future in the field of evolutionary ecology, and give some new idéas for research. You can download the paper here. If the links do not work, contact me or Anna Runemark (anna.runemark@zooekol.lu.se) and try to get a PDF from us instead. By, the way, do we have any "fika-volunteer" on Wednesday morning?

The exciting week does not end on Wednesday, luckily. On Thursday, Fabrice's thesis opponent, Professor Andrew Hendry from McGill University (Canada) will give a research seminar at 13.00 in the "Blue Hall" (note the time: it is one hour earlier than the "official" Thursday seminar which starts at 14.00). Hendry has done a lot of research on rapid evolutionary change in natural populations, gene flow, "eco-evolutionary dynamics" and ecological speciation. Thetitle of Andrew's talk on Thursday 19 November is:
"Ecological speciation (or the lack there-of) in sticklebacks, guppies and Darwin's finches"
Finally, this exciting week with the phenotype in focus will have a grand finale on Friday November 20 in the "Blue Hall" at 10.00, when Fabrice will defend his thesis. I hope as many as possible can and will join in to see Fabrice defending himself against Andrew Hendry, who is known to be a very critical and detail-oriented scientist. Most welcome!

Monday, November 2, 2009

New PhD-thesis in the lab: Fabrice Eroukhmanoff

I am pleased to announce that a new PhD-thesis will now be defended in our group: Fabrice Eroukhmanoff's Magnum Opus "The interplay Between Selection and Constraints on adaptive Divergence and Phenotypic Evolution".
This is the third Ph.D.-student that has finished his/her thesis in our lab, the previous two were Jessica Abbott (2006) and Tom Gosden (2008). You can find an abstract and more informaton about the thesis here. Well done Fabrice!
The thesis will be defended on Friday November 20 in the Blue Hall (Ecology Building). The external opponent will be Professor Andrew Hendry from McGill University Canada, and the thesis committé will consist of Professors Anna Qvarnström (Uppsala University), Karin Rengefors (Limnology, Lund University) and Janne S. Kotiaho (University of Jyväskylä, Finland). The thesis defence is open to everyone, and I encourage you to participate in this exciting event.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Rapid adaptive divergence and FST-QST

Time for another study from the Svensson Lab:

In a recent study published (in early view) in Molecular Ecology, we (Erik Svensson, Anders Hargeby and myself) have quantified phenotypic and quantitative genetic divergence between two ecotypes of our favorite study organism, the aquatic isopod (Asellus aquaticus) in two lakes in southern Sweden. We have tried to assess the relative role of selection and genetic drift during rapid and parallel ecotype divergence events. We demonstrate that for seven quantitative traits, the average QST between ecotypes is significantly greater than the mean FST, which is clearly consistent with a role for divergent selection causing phenotypic and genetic differentiation of these ecotypes. However, some QST-values for traits linked to size-related morphology fall within the distribution of neutral FST-values, whereas it is not the case for pigmentation traits. Our study therefore underscores the need for caution when evolutionary inferences are made from FST-QST analysis.

For instance, many FST-QST studies have investigated large number of populations and traits, without prior ecological and historical knowledge of the system. This aspect is important because if, like it is in our case, you investigate a case of parallel evolution, you may use specific pairwise comparisons as "replicates", and others as “controls”. The hierarchical structure of the populations and their history might therefore be of importance.

Second, neutral markers may sometimes not be so neutral, thus it is important to compare the distributions of FST with the distributions of QST, and not their means, if one wants to infer the role of selection in the divergence process. All these issues have been reviewed in a very nice paper by Whitlock also published in Molecular Ecology in 2008 and that we have discussed in a previous lab-meeting.

A last point I would like to insist on is that of course, this kind of approach will never beat the advantages of directly measuring selection in the wild. However, it might also be tricky to determine is selection is driving divergence between two populations even when estimating selection in the wild, since it is often difficult to encompass all its components at once, for example linked to fecundity, mate choice, intrinsic survival, predation, etc. Thus, by using FST-QST comparisons, one will estimate the role of the “net” selection differential between populations and its role during divergence. And this is also an advantage.

Well, I hope it inspired you to read our paper…

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Smells like?

As some of you know I have spent the last 9 months working with Steve Chenoweth at The University of Queensland where we use the model species Drosophila serrata. In this species (and other Drosophila) males court females using a blend of cuticular hyrocarbons (CHCs) that are produced in the oenocytes of both sexes (see pic above), located on the inner surface of the animal’s abdominal cuticle. These CHCs are known to explain around ¼ of male mating success in D.serrata, and are the subject of a lot of work produced by both Mark Blow’s and Steve’s Lab.

With this in mind I wanted to draw your attention to a recent paper in Nature on the important role of the CHC’s produced by another species of Drosophila, D.melanogaster, not only intraspecfic mating interactions, but also species identity and interspecfic matings. In the paper by Billeter et al. (sorry, not open access) they explain how they knocked out the production of the oenocytes of adult male and female D.melanogaster and found some interesting results. Firstly flies missing the oenocytes (oe-) became a hyper-sexual stimulas to other wild caught males. Oe- males and females were courted and mated far more than their wild caught counterparts. By applying different pheromone compounds, singularly, to the oe- individuals they found a slowing in male mating attempts (ie the female pheromones actually put the males off). Another interesting find was that female oe- were actually courted and mated with males from another species (D.simulans), and again by applying one pheromone compound restored the species barrier.

So a few CHC’s in D.melanogaster have been shown to control male-male mating interactions, influence male courting rates and act as a species barrier to other Drosophila males. Think about that next time you try a unisex eau de toilette.


Social interactions depend on individuals recognizing each other, and in this context many organisms use chemical signals to indicate species and sex1. Cuticular hydrocarbon signals are used by insects, including Drosophila melanogaster, to distinguish conspecific indi- viduals from others1–3. These chemicals also contribute to intraspe- cific courtship and mating interactions1–3. However, the possibility that sex and species identification are linked by common chemical signalling mechanisms has not been formally tested. Here we pro- vide direct evidence that a single compound is used to communicate female identity among D. melanogaster, and to define a reproductive isolation barrier between D. melanogaster and sibling species. A transgenic manipulation eliminated cuticular hydrocarbons by ablating the oenocytes, specialized cells required for the expression of these chemical signals. The resulting oenocyte-less (oe2) females elicited the normal repertoire of courtship behaviours from males, but were actually preferred over wild-type females by courting males. In addition, wild-type males attempted to copulate with oe2 males. Thus, flies lacking hydrocarbons are a sexual hypersti- mulus. Treatment of virgin females with the aversive male phero- mone cis-vaccenyl acetate (cVA) significantly delayed mating of oe2 females compared to wild-type females. This difference was elimi- nated when oe2 females were treated with a blend of cVA and the female aphrodisiac (7Z,11Z)-heptacosadiene (7,11-HD), showing that female aphrodisiac compounds can attenuate the effects of male aversive pheromones. 7,11-HD also was shown to have a crucial role in heterospecific encounters. Specifically, the species barrier was lost because males of other Drosophila species courted oe2 D. melano- gaster females, and D. simulans males consistently mated with them. Treatment of oe2 females with 7,11-HD restored the species barrier, showing that a single compound can confer species identity. These results identify a common mechanism for sexual and species recog- nition regulated by cuticular hydrocarbons.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

No lab-meeting the coming weeks, but some exciting symposia

This week's Wednesday (28 October), we will not have our usual lab-meeting, and we will probably have a break for a couple of weeks for now, due to (among other things) teaching activities and CAnMove-PI meeting on my part. However, in case somebody wants to utilize "Darwin" on Wednesday, the room is booked between 10 and 12. Feel free to use it!

On Monday and Tuesday, Caroline Isaksson and Tobias Uller from EGI at Oxford University, will visit the department and give two talks (organized by Maria von Post and Andreas Nordén). I would strongly recommend you to go to these seminars, which will take place in the "Red Room" (adjacent to the "Blue Hall"). On Monday there will two regular research seminars on the afternoon, while on Tuesday there will be a "mini-symposium" about applied and societal aspects of ecological research, where I will also contribute with a talk. Here is the schedule for both days:

SEMINAR 26TH OF OCTOBER14.00-15.00 Causes and consequences of oxidative stress in wild animalsCaroline Isaksson

15-15.30 Coffee

15.30-16.30 Why is Sex Determination in Reptiles so Variable? Integrating Development, Ecology & EvolutionTobias Uller

Titles and presenters:

1. What can evolutionary ecologists contribute to medicine?
Insights and Inspiration from the World Health Summit
Dr. Tobias Uller, EGI, Oxford University

2. From selfish genes to group selection - implications for society
Prof. Erik Svensson, Lund University

3. Urban ecology
Dr. Caroline Isaksson, EGI, Oxford University

4. Attitudes and biodiversity
Dr. Johan Ahnström, Lund University

Coffee will be served during the afternoon.

Moreover, there will also be another exciting symposium next week, on Friday (30 October), namely a "Darwin-symposium" , organized by the Royal Academy of Sciences and the Royal Physiographic Society (main organizer: Professor Eric Warrant). The speakers include professors Dan-Eric Nilsson from Lund, Siv Andersson from Uppsala and legendary sociobiologist and evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers from the US. Do not miss this! The symposium is a full-day symposium, and you will find more information and directions here. All the talks will take place at "Palaestra" at the main university area (close to "AF-borgen").

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bayesian statistics for next Wednesday meeting

Last lab meeting Erik and Maja told us about a course on the program R and Bayesian statistics in Uppsala they have been attending. Inspired by this we decided to have a meeting where we discuss Bayesian statistics on Wednesday. First we will discuss a review by Beaumont and Rannala which I first read to prepare for a conservation genetic data analysis course last autumn and found really useful as an introduction to the topic. The paper is found here http://www.nature.com/nrg/journal/v5/n4/pdf/nrg1318.pdf

After that Erik and Maja will give a short presentation on what they have learnt in Uppsala.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Labmeeting on hidden genetic variation 14 October 2009

This Wednesday (14/10 2009), I was thinking that we should discuss a recent TREE-article that deals with the fascinating topic of "hidden" genetic variation and its evolutionary implications. You can find this article here. Also, here is another background article, also from TREE, for those of you who wish to learn more.

Hidden genetic variation is genetic variation that is not normally expressed, e. g. genes that is contingent upon environmental conditions before they are expressed, and hence before they can be "seen" by natural or sexual selection and thus contribute to adaptive evolutionary change.
A well-known example of hidden genetic variation are so-called stress proteins or heat shock proteins, that function as molecular "chaperones" to protect cells during extreme environmental conditions, e. g. during high temperature conditions. How important is such hidden genetic variation in evolution? This what we should discuss, among several other topics.

I also hope that our new CAnMove-postdoc Sophia Engel (shared with Anders Hedenströms laboratory) will join in Wednesday, as she has now arrived to Lund. This would be an excellent opportunity to meet the rest of our lab and introduce her to the crowd.

Time and place as usual: "Darwin" at 10.00 on Wednesday (14/10). Any fika-volunteer?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pictures from the Okavango Delta and Botswana

You might remember that I did an exploratory trip to northern Botswana and the Okavango Delta last winter, with the aim to find some interesting odonate systems for future research. As I have applied for some research grants to work in this fascinating region, I hope that I will be able to return to do some directed and systematic studies in the future.

I have now put up some pictures from this trip on the web, which you can see here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hello Svensson Lab!! Here's my travelogue:

Well, I left about 1 month ago and boy has it been a fast month!! I first went to my mom's house and recovered a little bit. I had been in Italy for a meeting and workshop, then I swung through Sweden for a couple days, then flew to Washington State in the northwestern corner of the USA, and by the time I got to my mom's I was pretty worn out. (The photo is of my mom's place, with the Olympic Mountains in the background; the Subaru behind the white car is my new set of wheels.)

After a couple days I bought a car and drove to Oregon to visit some long lost friends. The day after I got there I went and watched one buddy play drums in a surf rock band, and then we walked down the street and I watched another buddy play guitar in a bluegrass band. My job through all of this was to drink strong ales, which I did admirably. Also while in Oregon I went to a shooting range and generally blew stuff up. It was at this moment that I truly felt I'd returned to the US. =-)

After Oregon I went to visit my dad and some other family for a week or so (this involved fishing, lots of motorcycle riding, and deck repair). Then I visited my sister and my nieces, and some other old friends (more beer). Then I returned to my mom's, regrouped, and headed out across the country.

First I went to San Francisco, which was about a 15 hour drive. This is not a productive direction to go when one wants to get to the eastern side of the US, but I had to pick up my desert tortoise, Squiggles. Boy has he grown over the last couple years!!! I quickly realized that she wasn't a she, but a he. I still call him she a lot, though. I also visited several old friends and played on the beach. Yet more beer was drunk. After a couple days in SF, I hit the highway, with Squiggles bravely riding shotgun. Two long days of driving got us to Fort Collins, Colorado. Guess what? Yup: more friends, and more beer. Some hiking and donkey petting. It was wonderful. Then we packed up and drove from Colorado to Hanover, New Hampshire, which took 3 long days of driving (Squiggles, to her, um.. I mean, his... credit didn't complain about the cheap, dirty motels I chose along the way). Dartmouth College is in Hanover, and New Hampshire is in the northeastern side of the state. Total distance from Washington to New Hampshire: 6709 km. Does Lund feel just a bit warmer? It should (sorry). My new postdoc is here at Dartmouth College in the Ryan Calsbeek lab. Ryan works on the evolutionary ecology of lizards, and does creative, first-rate work. I feel very lucky and excited to be here. My job, though, is to fire up some newt science.

Now that I am sort of settled in at Dartmouth, tomorrow I am to do my first day of field work catching newts with someone from the McPeek lab. During my travels I didn't answer almost any emails, and I have hundreds to deal with -- sorry!!!! Be patient and I'll get to you. But right now, as I settle in, every minute is booked and I'm doing my best to catch up.

I'd like to give a warm THANK YOU to everyone at Lund University, and especially the Svennson lab, for an outstanding 2.3 years!!!!! A finer group of people could hardly be found, and I now look forward to visiting you all as my "old friends", and drinking beer, and posting it on a blog. I am a different person as a result of my time with all of you. =-)

Brains, Pain and Autumn Rain

Hej Svensson Lab!

Stockholm is one beautiful city. When I'm not at the Karolinska Institute learning the ropes on human behavioral studies, I am out wandering around the city's busy parks and waterways. It certainly gets dark quick up here.
In the lab, Martin Ingvar has set me under the direction and guidance of two Phd students, Karin Jensen and Fredrick Lindstedt, for a solid introduction to neuroscience. Karin defends her thesis in October while Fred is just beginning his doctoral studies. Erik will be happy to hear that Karin has recently published in PloS ONE, his fav journal.
Fred and I are tasked with designing a study that looks at the interaction between emotion-regulatory genes and pain perception. Over the weeks our colleagues have developed avoidance strategies as we search for 'naïve' subjects to test our methods on. We begin pretrials next week and we'll see if our protocol works. I can't say too much as our future subjects are people and they can google.
I've also become involved with an fMRI brain-imaging study of people who suffer from Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). FMS is a disease consisting of lasting chronic pain ( >3 months) that exists without any measurable peripheral tissue damage. Neuro-imaging studies have been essential in establishing how FMS sufferes differ from the general population in how they process pain. I'm learning that FMRI can be a great tool for connecting the dots between the biological, cognitive and psychological systems that determine behavior. Plus, hanging around the scanner means I get a pretty brain scan to take home to Mom (see pic!).
At the moment I am applying for graduate school as well as funding which has me reflecting on my time in Lund. I'm so grateful to have been a part of the Svensson lab- I learned so much!
See you guys in December,
Lisa Orr

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

No lab-meeting this week but another opportunity to broaden your views

This week we will not have a lab-meeting, as I will be in Uppsala, participating in a course about the Open Source-programme "R". As some of you might still want some intellectual input this week anyway, you could always listen to the excellent swedish radio programme "Filosofiska Rummet".

Last Sunday, the theme of this programme were the moralistic and the naturalistic fallacies. I was one of the three participants, together with sociologist Eva Kärfve from Lund University and philosophy professor Per Bauhn from Kalmar. You can listen to the programme here. It is in Swedish, though, but most of you will understand the discussion. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Write a blogpost about evolution, compete, get famous and win a ticket to an interesting conference!

When I started blogging, I was met with a lot of scepticism among many of my colleagues, who were very suspicious about the bloggosphere. "It is waste of time", or "Why are you doing this?" where two common knee-jerk reactions, especially among some of the more senior members of our department. I always felt these reactions said more about the people who expressed them, than it said anything about the utility of blogging. Remarkably, some senior members still have these opinions, although they have now been prooven wrong so many times over and over again, so you do not hear these stupid comments much more in the open.

In my opinion, blogging is an excellent new form of communication, that is here to stay. However, blogging is only one new form of communication, and it will certainly not replace all other forms of communication. But blogging is a new information channel, and it would be as stupid to dismiss this new communication channel today, as it would have been to be against the television in the 1940-ties or the phones about 100 years ago. How could one be against new ways of communicating science and other important issues?

Today, we have several interesting research blogs in the Ecology Building apart from this one: Anders Hedenströms "Animal Flight Lab" and the "CAnMove"-blog being two excellent examples of such interesting research group blogs. There is now also a general agreement among many scientists that "Public Outreach" (which blogs are one example of), can actually be beneficial to you also in your scientific career. Is anybody really surprised?

The negative views against blogging among some of my colleagues reminds me about the scepticism against "Open Access" (OA)-publishing a few years earlier, and the scepticism against PLoS ONE in particular. I am quite amazed about how extremely conservative many scientists are against new things: blogs, social media like Facebook or OA-publishing. These new means of communication are here to stay - and it does actually not matter if this-or-that less known second-grade researcher at Lund University says about these phenomena, as long as they work and accepted by the broader international scientific community.

It is after all the international arena that is important - not what less-informed self-proclaimed "experts" claim at stupid coffee-room discussions in the Ecology Building. It is therefore with great satisfaction I can tell the readers of this blog that PLoS ONE was recently awarded a prestigious price for the most innovative scientific journal in 2009. This award was provided by the very prestigious organisation ALPSP ("The Association for learned and Professional Society Publishers"). The motivation for providing this award to PLoS ONE was partly:

"in recognition of a truly innovative approach to any aspect of publication. Applications are judged on their originality and innovative qualities, together with their utility, benefit to their community and long term prospects. Any area of innovation is eligible – it could, for example, be a novel type of print or online publication or service, or even a radically different approach to a marketing campaign."
(Need I say that nobody from backward university Lund is involved in this organisation?)

Part of PLoS ONE's and other PLoS-journals success is the approach to provide information about number of downloads and citation indices in conjunction with each published article, something that will hopefully make it even more attractive to publish in PLoS, as it is clearly an "added value" to have access to this information directly from the article -rather than having to go through a data-base like ISI (for instance). Inlinks, links to blogs and other articles citing the focal article will all contribute to increase the reader traffic to PLoS-articles in the near future. For instance, here you can see such information statistics for an article in PLoS ONE that Tom Gosden and I published two years ago, we have now more than 10 citations and almost 2000 downloads! Not bad, in my opinion.

But also scientific blogging is a growing activity, that becomes more and more important, both for journalists and for scientists like us who would like to communicate our results to the laymen and amongst ourselves. Now you actually have a nice opportunity to write a blogpost about evolution and win a price. You can read more about this competition here and on the blog "A blog around the clock".

Basically, if you write a blogpost about some evolution-theme, you could send in that blogpost (i. e. the URL) and participate in the competition of the best blogpost. The award to the winner is quite nice: you will get 750 US$ to cover the costs of attending a science communication conference: "Science Online 2010", that will take place in North Carolina in early 2010. The competition is funded by the "National Evolutionary Synthesis Centre" (NESCENT), a prestigious scientific centre in North Carolina, funded by the National Science Foundation.

This particular blog is a group blog, and not my private one, meaning that anyone one of us could send in a blogpost and participate in this competition, if you wish. Or we could nominate on of us, if we think that there is some particular blogpost that you found especially interesting. I would encourage you all to seriously consider this possibility, even though you should feel no pressure to participate if you do not wish to. However, I hope the general message goes through: blogging can be useful. Also for scientists interested in evolutionary biology. Don't listen to the nay-sayers! They are just loosers and yesterday's scientists. Just as they were wrong on OA-publishing and PLoS ONE, they will be wrong on blogs and Facebook. With historical hindsight, they will be laughed upon.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lab-meeting on population divergence in isopods and lizards

This coming Wednesday (30 September), we will discuss one manuscript by Fabrice, Anders Hargeby and me on sexual isolation and migration modification in the aquatic isopod (Asellus aquaticus) and another one by Anna, Bengt and me on colour polymorphism divergence and population genetics in Podarcis-lizards. We would like to have the input from as many as possible on these two interesting manuscripts (at least we think they are interesting, but as authors we are of course highly biased!).

We will start with the lizard manuscript at 10.00, and continue with the isopod manuscript after that. I will send out these manuscripts by e-mail to the whole group today (Monday) provided that Anna and Fabrice send me the updated last versions first. If you do not get it by e-mail, please e-mail Anna (anna.runemark@zooekol.lu.se) and Fabrice (fabrice.eroukhmanoff@zooekol.lu.se) so that they can send you the manuscripts.

Time and place as usual: "Darwin" at 10.00 on September 30 (Wednesday). Any fika volunteer?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lab-meeting on the ecology of (incomplete) speciation

This Wednesday(September 23), I was thinking that we should discuss the issue of incomplete speciation and "speciation reversal", i. e. the opposite of speciation. There is a recent TREE-article by Patrik Nosil, Luke Harmon and Ole Seehausen that deals with this issue, and which can be found here.

Personally, I think that the issue of why speciation does not occur, is as important as why it occurs, and hopefully we will learn something new from this article. I think that our study systems (lizards, isopods, damselflies) are almost perfect in many respects to adress these kind of fascinating questions, so please study this article in depth.

Time and place as usual: the "Darwin"-room at 10.00 on Wednesday September 23. Any fika-volunteer?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lab-meeting on G-matrix divergence i isopods

This coming Wednesday (16 September), we will discuss genetic correlations and G-matrices in aquatic isopods (Asellus aquaticus). It is a manuscript that Fabrice and I have worked on for quite a while now, and which is one of the papers in his Ph.D.-thesis that he will defend on November 20. Naturally, we would appreciate all constructive input and criticisms so that we can incorporate these before Fabrice will handle in his thesis to the printer on October 20.

This manuscript which deals with morphological variation and quantiative genetics of morphology, should also be of interest to Tina and Sanna, who have been working recently on phenotypic and genetic correlations of behavioural traits in these isopods.

You can get this manuscript by e-mailing me (erik.svensson@zooekol.lu.se) or Fabrice (fabrice.eroukhmanoff@zooekol.lu.se). If Fabrice sends me the last version, I will also send out this manuscript to the group tomorrow (Monday).

Time and place as usual: "Darwin-room" at 10.00 on Wednesday 16 September. Any fika volunteer?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Relaxed selection and loss of non-beneficial traits

In the latest issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution, there is a review and metaanalysis of the fascinating phenomen of trait loss after the disappearance of selection pressures maintaining the traits. Classical cases is the loss of vision among cave-dwelling fish or loss of flight ability or antipredator adaptations among birds and insects invading oceanic islands with few predators. This study is briefly reviewed at Science Daily, and one of the co-authors is Andrew P. Hendry, the external opponent of Fabrice Eroukhmanoff's Ph.D.-thesis on November 20 2009.

Fascinating questions to adress here is why do some traits disappear fast, while others take much longer time to decay? According to the results it seems as if two factors might be important in determining the speed by which traits are lost when no longer maintained by selection:

1/Traits that are energetically or nutrient-wise costly are more likely to disappear fast. Examples of such traits are the armour-plate reductions in marine sticklebacks, which disappear fast when these sticklebacks invade freshwater environments, where the minerals that are needed to produce these plates are scarce.

2/Traits that have a relatively simple genetic basis, and which are governed by one or a few loci are lost faster than traits governed by many traits. Examples of such traits include the loss of vision among cave-dwelling animals. Although many genes might influence vision, it might be sufficient with mutations in one or a few genes to cause blindness.

These interesting questions also apply to some of the study systems we are working in our lab, e. g. the Podarcis-lizards that Anna studies on the islets in Greece, where predators are few or the isopods that Fabrice have studied in Lake Krankesjön and Lake Tåkern which have invaded a new limnetic habitat (stonewort), where the isopoods seem to have evolved a suite of different anti-predator adaptations, perhaps as a response to a changed predator regime (invertebrates vs. fish) or perhaps even relaxed overall predation.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is history always written by the victors?

I had planned to write a blogg post on my recent activities with a friend who was visiting us from Sweden. After a wonderful few weeks cavorting around Australia’s east coast including whale watching, snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, exploring the rainforests of Daintree (where we found a Hercules moth, see picture) and Springbrook national park (see pic of common tree snake eating what looks like a gecko), camping on the beach at Stradbroke Island and an ill-advised skydive onto a beach north of Brisbane (for pictures of some of these activities see this site) I felt I had enough to write about, even if it broke the recent run of excellent true scientific posts.

But my head was turned by a correspondence letter in this week’s nature about a retrospective book review of Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique (Zoological Philosophy) from 1809. Ignoring the small errors pointed out by the correspondence, the book review opened my eyes a little to the misrepresentative way Lamarck is viewed within main stream science (or at least by the english). I have been as guilty as many for lambasting the work of Lamarck (mainly as a way of mocking Fabrice and the French in general), based purely on summaries of his work I have read in undergraduate textbooks. So have we chosen to over look Lamarck’s main contributions to our field? Having only read what is mentioned in the articles above it would be wrong of me to draw any conclusions and opinions from this……but of course I will and I say yes.

So how does science remember those who have gone before? We are dealing with philosophy of history when we look back over the works of those who have preceded us. Even though much of the work is in print, and therefore assumed to be infallible, misreading and misquoting work is something we are all guilty of to some extent. Sometimes it is easier to cite a piece of work based on the general consensus of what was said rather than reading it yourself. So a lesson for us all, if you're fortunate enough for your work to be remembered, just hope that you're lucky enough that it is remembered favourably and that you're not French (just a joke for Fabrice)!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lab-meeting on intralocus sexual conflict on Wednesday 9 September 2009

This Wednesday (9 September), I thought we should discuss a recent TREE-article about intralocus sexual conflict, its origin and (possible) solution, which you can find here. The authors are Russel Bonduriansky and Steve Chenoweth,the latter Tom Gosden's postdoc host at Queensland University in Australia. It is a timely overview over a rapidly growing field, which was quite evident for those of us who participated in the ESEB-meeting in Turin, where a whole session was dedicated to the fascinating and increasingly popular topic of intralocus sexual conflict.

It was interesting for me to closely have seen this "explosion" of a field, which I have been familiar with for quite a while, but which few (at least in Lund) understood a few years ago, or realized the importance of. I strongly suspect that the term "gender load", which I had difficulties in explaining in some talks I gave in Lund, will soon enter the mainstream language of evolutionary biology. Perhaps future historians of science will see the signs of a minor conceptual and scientific "revolution" here, as people are increasingly viewing the genome not as a peaceful and harmonic and well-functioning "unit", but rather as something is constantly selected in different directions, the end-result becoming a compromise between male and female fitness optima (see figure above).

For those of you want some additional background reading, I can also recommend Robert Cox and Ryan Calsbeek's recent metaanalysis of intralocus sexual conflict, which was published in American Naturalist earlier this year, and which you can find here. You could also download my own paper (co-published with Andrew McAdam and Barry Sinervo) about intralocus sexual conflict over immune defence and how it affects sex-specific signalling in lizards. This paper is in press in Evolution and can be found here.

I suggest that we all read the TREE-review, and those who wants can also study the two other papers as a general background and bring them to the lab-meeting. We meet the usual time: 10.00 on Wednesday morning in "Darwin". Any fika volunteer?

"Human" vs. "animal" evolution

I thought a recent study from PLoS ONE might be of interest to some of you. In this meta-amalysis, McKellar and Hendry have compared within- and among-population phenotypic levels of variation in humans and animals, for body height and body mass. This study is I think very nice because it is clearly conceptualized, and the results are really straight-forward and well discussed. They also used an estimate of variation called CV, the coefficient of variation that was introduced by Houle in 1992 in a paper published in Genetics and that has in my opinion been a bit neglected by quantitative geneticists. This estimate has the advantage of being scale-free, and therefore allows comparisons between populations or species without bias.

They used an impressive dataset of 99 human populations, 210 animal populations and 848 animal species. Their main conclusions are that within-population variation in body height (but not body mass) is relatively low in humans, whereas among-population variation is more or less similar to what one might measure in animal populations. They interpret it as a sign for strong natural selection on body height in human populations which have become locally adapted.

This paper is, I am sure, probably going to be cited in the media, if it has not already been done, and will probably contribute to the growing success of PLoS ONE. Andrew Hendry has also been working on human influence on evolutionary rates of animals and more in particular human influence on beak size bimodality in finches. He is particularly interested in studying cases of rapid evolution and in the way ecology and evolution interacts on contemporary time scales. I am honored to have him as an opponent for my thesis defense that will take place on the 20th of November, and I can already tell you that Andrew will give a talk on these subjects on Thursday the 19th of November, at 13.00 in Blå Hallen at the Ecology Building.

If you are interested in contemporary evolution, if you have no idea what the term "eco-evolutionary dynamics" really means or simply if this PloS ONE paper has intrigued you, I recommend already now that you mark this date in your calendars, because you will probably don’t want to miss this talk.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Thoughts on ESEB and the Morphometrics Workshop

I returned from the ESEB meetings, plus a follow-up workshop on Geometric Morphometrics, last night. Boy am I tired!! I'm on my 3rd cup of coffee this morning and still feel sleepy; more than one good night's sleep may be needed for a full recovery.

I thought the ESEB meeting was outstanding!!! There were lots of great talks, and I got to meet several evolutionary heros of mine, such as Russell Lande and Steve Arnold. Both were present at my talk, and when Lande asked me a question I nearly shat my britches in front of everyone. I don't think anyone noticed. One honest Swede (who will remain anonymous here) told me that my talk "was good, but not as good as your others," an assessment that I can live with. It was my first talk on entirely new material, so I forgive myself; I look forward to a 2nd opportunity! =-) Erik gave a great, wide-ranging talk on fitness trade-offs between fitness related traits. Some of his slides didn't work (the entire meeting suffered from technical misfires), but he was able to recover and present his messages clearly. I particularly appreciated his incorporation of an explicit adaptive landscapes perspective. The talk was also an interesting contrast with Roff's talk (which I also really enjoyed), which was right before Erik's and was a much more traditional quantitative genetic perspective on the same topic (not so wide ranging as Erik's approach).

I am biased I suppose, but I also LOVED LOVED LOVED the talks by Ryan Calsbeek and Robert Cox -- both on intralocus sexual conflict. A year ago I barely knew that this even was; now I want to study it (by the way, Erik, Barry Sinervo, and Andrew McAdam have a super paper in the "Early View" page in Evolution right now on this very topic). Ryan is my next postdoctoral advisor, and Bob is a postdoc in their lab. They both reported on their studies of Anolis lizards. In a nutshell, there is intralocus sexual conflict on body size -- that is, females and males have different optimal body sizes. How is it resolved (or is it?)? In part, it seems that females use cryptic female choice, and sort sperm from large males to make sons, and sperm from small males to make daughters. This maximizes the fitness of offspring. What made the talks great? First, they were intellectually rigorous (I learned a lot). This is the most important part. Second, the slides were perfect. This matters more than some people realize, and is hard to do, too. Every slide was readable (no axes labeled with tiny text), not overproduced, and informative. Third, they are both great speakers, with confident, engaging styles. I'd like to respectfully request that Bob not apply for any jobs that I want. =-)

Finally, Ian Dworkin gave a very cool talk on the last day (I stole a picture from his web page for this blog post). He is basically doing the same project I am (looking at selection on wing shape by predators), but using lab experiments with Drosophila and mantids. He has an amazing study system going here, I think, and can do things Erik and I can't do, such as concordant artificial selection experiments and studies of the genetics of development. I am certain to be citing his papers a lot. I got to speak with Ian, too, and he's a cool dude.

After ESEB I attended a workshop on geometric morphometrics by Chris Klingenberg and Andrea Cardini. It was a great experience for me. Chris and Andrea are both in the "cool dude" category, too. We learned how to use the program MorphoJ, which Chris created. It's an amazing, integrative program that does some analyses no other program does (I have lots of new ideas now!). Both Chris and Andrea are real experts on morphometrics, and it was a great opportunity to have a chance to interact with them and learn from them. That is one of my principles: never pass on the chance to learn from some of the best. We had some great discussion about semilandmarks, which both Chris and Andrea view with skepticism (semilandmarks are placed on edges and outlines and can mathematically slide along along the edge; they do not identify homologous points). 13 of my 16 landmarks are semilandmarks. I believe I convinced them that they work very well for my project, but Chris and Andrea have an excellent point that we must all remember: just because you can mathematically accomplish a task doesn't mean that it has biological relevance. Care is needed. In the case of semilandmarks, they become meaningless when structures twist (for example, during ontogeny) or when one has, for example, pumps 0n the outline with no linking homology. I have no such issues, but these problems are very common. I like my use of semilandmarks because it allows me to look at total shape. Several studies of insect wings have many good landmarks but few (or none) of them are on the wing outline, so that overall wing shape is not quantified, only patterns of homology within the wing. These could in principle change without a change in overall shape.

So, that's that! Two very good meetings, one very full brain.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Adaptation driven by novel mutations or from selection on standing genetic variation?

Our collegue Hopi Hoekstra at Harvard University in the US, who visited us in August last year, has a paper in one of the last issues of Science. You can read a brief report on the website Science Daily here.

At first I was not very excited about this paper, as it appears to be the usual story about the melanocortin receptor (MC1R) and how it affects coat colour patterns in various mice populations, a story that by know is sufficiently wellknown and established so one wonders what remains to be discovered.

MC1R is responsible for dark coat colour in mice that occur in dark habitats (see above), e. g. on the dark lava flows in Arizona, that Hopi Hoekstra has previously studied together with her colleague Michael Nachmann.

However, this new paper has a new twist: it appears as if selection has acted on a novel mutant in deer mice in Nebraska, and this novel that apparently appeared in the population shortly after the last Ice Age, about 8 000 years ago.

Catherine Linnen and Hopi have analyzed genetic variation among these different mice populations and estimated the age of the allele that causes light coat colour in the mice. Light coloured mice carry a certain allele at a gene called Agouti, and this allele is quite young as it shows evidence of a selective sweep through reduction in DNA sequence diversity around that particular allele. Linnen and Hoekstra have thus used the well-known statistical approach of coalescense analysis to infer the age of the novel mutation at the Agouti locus that is causing light coat colour.

This result is important, as it provides some contrast to recent suggestions that novel mutations might not be that important in cases of rapid evolutionary change, which have instead emphasize selection on standing genetic variation in rapid evolutionary change. For instance, rapid evolutionary change need not always to rely on standing genetic variation as suggested by the findings from other systems like sticklebacks. The alternative is instead that rapid adaptive change is driven by a process by which selection in novel environments "picks up" and favours alleles that already segregated in the ancestral population, rather than "waiting" for the emergence of rare novel beneficial mutations (that might take long time to appear).

This process is sometimes also called phenotype sorting, referring to how a polymorphic and variable base populations might become transformed in to a new (monomorphic and less variable) population through the selective increase and selective loss of already existing phenotypes, which are then "filtered" by selection in the novel environment. Something along these lines appears to also be the case in the freshwater isopods that we have studied in our group, and we discussed this earlier this year in a paper published in Journal of Evolutionary Biology, which you can find here.

In summary, the relative importance of selection acting on novel mutations vs. standing genetic variation is probably something that will be discussed a lot the coming years in evolutionary biology and ecology.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Goodbye Shawn and Lisa! No lab-meeting this week

This week there will not be any lab-meeting on Wednesday (2 September), as I am catching up on various administrative work and waiting manuscripts after the ESEB-meeting in Italy. I aim for a lab-meeting next week, though, on Wednesday September 9. Suggestions for papers are welcome, and if you do not have any I suggest that we discuss a few papers about intralocus sexual conflict, which was a popular topic at the ESEB-meeting last week.

I would also like to say goodbye to our great co-workers Master's student Lisa Orr and postdoc Shawn Kuchta, who are now leaving us, after one and two years, respectively. I hope best for their future careers. We surely all hope to see you again in Lund at some point in the future. As our lab has now temporarily shrunk in size (hopefully temporarily!) it becomes even more important that we all go to the lab-meetings to get good discussions and have the necessary "critical mass" in terms of number of participants when we discuss papers.

Following some advice from Shawn and how many labs function in the US, I have therefore now decided that our lab-meetings will from now on be compulsory for the three PhD-students whom I am still the main advisor of: Anna, Tina and Fabrice. If one of you can't make it for a Wednesday meeting, you should contact me well in advance so that I know this and can cancel in time if we are not enough participants for meetings. Legitimate reasons for not participating in a lab-meeting include sick leave, maternity leave, conferences, field work or lab work outside Lund, or when I am away travelling. Lab work in Lund or manuscript writing are not legitimate reasons for absence on Wednesday meetings.

This new rule, which ultimately will be to the benefit to all of us, will start operating from September 9. The next PhD-student to defend his thesis, Fabrice, has to follow this rule at least until his dissertation on November 20 (and hopefully voluntarily after that as well). I encourage you all to also try to bring in those PhD-students for whom I am not main advisor for to get an even bigger discussion group, e. g. Josefin and Sanna. Master's students are also always very welcome. We might soon have a new Canadian Master's student from Canada (Andrew McAdam's lab) coming in next year, by the way, and two new postdocs (Sophia Engel and Machteld Verzijden) are also in the pipeline. The more participants and lively discussions in the lab-meetings the better, for you and your PhD-education. I hope that we can soon discuss some of Fabrice's thesis-chapters and a new manuscript by Anna on Podarcis-lizards in September or early October.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Second conference day: Agents of selection and the ecology of selection

The second full conference day in Turin has been spent in the symposium that I organized (together with Alexis Chaine) entitled The phenotype-fitness map revisited: agents of selection and the importance of ecology in evolutionary studies. This symposium was, I would say, a HUGE success, and the room was crowded from the very beginning. It is clear to me that evolutionary biologists are increasingly realizing that they should not take ecology as "given" or treat it as a "black box" and only focus on DNA-sequence variation, which has been dominating these evolutionary conferences a lot the past decade.

Luckily, things are now changing and there is an increasing interest in the actual ecological causes of selection and their effects of evolutionary diversification. These ecological factors include inter- and intraspecific competition, predation, parasitism, social environments, to name only a few. Todays speakers included Craig Benkman, who gave an interesting overview of the crossbill radiation in North American Europe (see picture above!) and its ecological causes: the size and hardness of the cones of coniferous trees. Benkman showed that selection on cones by crossbills changes if there are also squirrels present in the area, a nice example of how interspecific competition can have a dramatic effect on evolutionary trajectories.

The other invited speaker was Stevan J. Arnold, a legendary evolutionary biologist and quantitative geneticist, who developed the statistical framework of estimating selection gradients in natural popualtions (together with Russel Lande). It was therefore very nice to see both Steve Arnold and Russ Lande sitting on the front row of this symposium, enjoying the fact that their landmark paper from 1983 (published in Evolution) still inspires workers today. Few papers in evolutionary biology has been cited as much as this landmark one.

Steve Arnold gave a talk about how the adaptive landscape model of microevolution can be extended to the macroevolutionary scale to understand phenomena like adaptive radiations. He presented some new models and a newly developed software (MIPoD: Microevolutionary Inference from Patterns of Divergence) that can estimate parameters like the strength of long-term stabilizing selection and its relationship to genetic drift and other evolutionary forces, using phylogenetic data, estimates of effective population sizes and phenotypic and genetic information from different evolving populations. He illustrated this new approach using his own collected empirical data on the number of vertebrae in gartern snake populations from different parts of North America.

Now, I will go and have a beer with my close college Tom van Doorn to prepare for tomorrow, which will include a trip to Mont Blanc in the afternoon. Hopefully, we will see some nice Alpine birds!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ESEB-meeting in Turin: impressions from first day

I am currently in Turin (Italy), participating in the European Evolutionary Biology Meeting, organized by European Society for the Study of Evolutionary Biology (ESEB). I travelled down to Italy with a dozen of my colleagues from the Ecology Department by train, a nice trip that took about 24 hours. We passed through the Alps and enjoyed the sight of the extensive grape fields in northern Italy before we reached our final destination. A nice experience that was also both climate-smart and environmentally friendly, compared to the usual flight trip.

What has happened this first day? Well, Hanna Kokko from University of Helsinkki gave an excellent keynote plenary about the need to incorporate ecology, particularly population dynamics, in evolutionary studies (and not only genetic factors). Being an ecologist myself, I could not agree more, and actually, tomorrow (Wednesday August 26) I am hosting a full-day symposium about the need to incorporate ecology, particularly information about selective agents (predators, parasites, inter- and intraspecific competitors etc.) and selective causes in studies of natural and sexual selection in the wild. Our two invited speakers tomorrow are Stevan J. Arnold and Craig Benkman, two well-known field evolutionary ecologists who have done excellent work in this spirit in natural populations of birds (crossbills) and amphibians (salamanders).

Back to Hanna Kokko. One of her most interesting points today was a critical re-evaluation of Bateman's principle, the idéa that differences in gamete size of males and females (i. e. eggs and sperm) is the main explanation for differences in reproductive strategies and sex-differences in parental care. This idéa has long been popular in evolutionary psychology and classical behavioural ecology, and it was taught to me as more or less a "truth" when I took courses in behavioural ecology and animal ecology in Lund in the late 80'ties and early 90'ties.

As many other popular idéas in behavioural ecology (a field with an unfortunate tendency of forming scientific "bandwagons") it was an oversimplification and Kokko convincingly argued that there are many other ecological factors than differences in gamete size that are likely to override these initial sex-differences and which are likely to be as important (or even more important) to explain sex differences in partental care. Among these factors are the operational sex ratio (OSR), which should (all else being equal) favor more male parental care when there are few females available and less mating opportunities, for a simple reason: males might then benefit more from providing parental care than try to hunt the few females that are available in the mating pool.

I suspect that Bateman's Principle will be start to become more critically questioned among evolutionary biologists in the future, although the hardcore dogmatic ones that remain (some of them in Lund) might not give up their pet idéa that easily and might be hard to convince. Paradigm shifts in the sense of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn sometimes need that some reactionary key figures retire, before new idéas can establish themselves, and this is also true for behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology.

Talking about pet idéas, another such (in Lund and at many other places) has been the so-called "good genes"-model of sexual selection. This popular hypothesis, which has actually quite limited empirical support in spite of its extreme popularity, was almost a dogma in the nineties in Lund and Uppsala and many other animal ecology departments. The idéa is that male secondary sexual ornaments (signals), like bright feathers and colour patterns, primarily evolve through the force of indirect selection for genetic fitness benefits of offspring.

Many workers have now pointed out, among them evolutionary geneticist William Rice, that the indirect fitness benefits are quite small and likely to be "swamped" by direct fitness costs (e. g. costs of mating, as shown in fruitflies) or direct fitness benefits (e. g. benefits of male parental care, which is probably present in most birds with parental care). Thus, even if indirect fitness exist, they are unlikely to be important in explaining the evolution of secondary sexual characters, which is of course frustrating for those bird behavioural ecologists who have invested a large part of their careers and prestige in to this particular scientific bandwagon which is no longer that fashionable anymore and actually contradicted by much new data and new theoretical models.

Recently, it has also been demonstrated in fruitflies, reed deer and some other animals that fitness benefits of alleles are sex-specific and that there exists intralocus sexual conflict in the genome: genes which have a positive fitness benefits on sons often have a detrimental fitness effect on daughters, which should further diminish the indirect fitness benefits of females mating to attractive males. This topic and other obstacles to the "good genes" were adressed in a symposium entitled Are “good genes” theories of sexual selection finally sinking into the sunset?. Well, one could hope so, or at least that people in behavioural ecology start to think more critically about this issue and that they do not take these "good genes" (important or not) as much as for granted as they have done in the past.