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Concept: Population ecology


The discovery of large geometrical earthworks in interfluvial settings of southern Amazonia has challenged the idea that Pre-Columbian populations were concentrated along the major floodplains. However, a spatial gap in the archaeological record of the Amazon has limited the assessment of the territorial extent of earth-builders. Here, we report the discovery of Pre-Columbian ditched enclosures in the Tapajós headwaters. The results show that an 1800 km stretch of southern Amazonia was occupied by earth-building cultures living in fortified villages ~Cal AD 1250-1500. We model earthwork distribution in this broad region using recorded sites, with environmental and terrain variables as predictors, estimating that earthworks will be found over ~400,000 km2of southern Amazonia. We conclude that the interfluves and minor tributaries of southern Amazonia sustained high population densities, calling for a re-evaluation of the role of this region for Pre-Columbian cultural developments and environmental impact.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Population density, Stream, Amazon River, Archaeology, Indigenous peoples


Hybridization between humans and Neanderthals has resulted in a low level of Neanderthal ancestry scattered across the genomes of many modern-day humans. After hybridization, on average, selection appears to have removed Neanderthal alleles from the human population. Quantifying the strength and causes of this selection against Neanderthal ancestry is key to understanding our relationship to Neanderthals and, more broadly, how populations remain distinct after secondary contact. Here, we develop a novel method for estimating the genome-wide average strength of selection and the density of selected sites using estimates of Neanderthal allele frequency along the genomes of modern-day humans. We confirm that East Asians had somewhat higher initial levels of Neanderthal ancestry than Europeans even after accounting for selection. We find that the bulk of purifying selection against Neanderthal ancestry is best understood as acting on many weakly deleterious alleles. We propose that the majority of these alleles were effectively neutral-and segregating at high frequency-in Neanderthals, but became selected against after entering human populations of much larger effective size. While individually of small effect, these alleles potentially imposed a heavy genetic load on the early-generation human-Neanderthal hybrids. This work suggests that differences in effective population size may play a far more important role in shaping levels of introgression than previously thought.

Concepts: Genetics, Human, Natural selection, Population ecology, Population genetics, Neanderthal, Genetic drift, World population


Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) populated Siberia, Beringia, and North America during the Pleistocene and early Holocene. Recent breakthroughs in ancient DNA sequencing have allowed for complete genome sequencing for two specimens of woolly mammoths (Palkopoulou et al. 2015). One mammoth specimen is from a mainland population 45,000 years ago when mammoths were plentiful. The second, a 4300 yr old specimen, is derived from an isolated population on Wrangel island where mammoths subsisted with small effective population size more than 43-fold lower than previous populations. These extreme differences in effective population size offer a rare opportunity to test nearly neutral models of genome architecture evolution within a single species. Using these previously published mammoth sequences, we identify deletions, retrogenes, and non-functionalizing point mutations. In the Wrangel island mammoth, we identify a greater number of deletions, a larger proportion of deletions affecting gene sequences, a greater number of candidate retrogenes, and an increased number of premature stop codons. This accumulation of detrimental mutations is consistent with genomic meltdown in response to low effective population sizes in the dwindling mammoth population on Wrangel island. In addition, we observe high rates of loss of olfactory receptors and urinary proteins, either because these loci are non-essential or because they were favored by divergent selective pressures in island environments. Finally, at the locus of FOXQ1 we observe two independent loss-of-function mutations, which would confer a satin coat phenotype in this island woolly mammoth.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Population ecology, Mammoth, Woolly mammoth, Wrangel Island, Dwarf elephant, Pleistocene megafauna


The ecological impacts of emerging pollutants such as pharmaceuticals are not well understood. The lack of experimental approaches for the identification of pollutant effects in realistic settings (that is, low doses, complex mixtures, and variable environmental conditions) supports the widespread perception that these effects are often unpredictable. To address this, we developed a novel screening method (GSA-QHTS) that couples the computational power of global sensitivity analysis (GSA) with the experimental efficiency of quantitative high-throughput screening (QHTS). We present a case study where GSA-QHTS allowed for the identification of the main pharmaceutical pollutants (and their interactions), driving biological effects of low-dose complex mixtures at the microbial population level. The QHTS experiments involved the integrated analysis of nearly 2700 observations from an array of 180 unique low-dose mixtures, representing the most complex and data-rich experimental mixture effect assessment of main pharmaceutical pollutants to date. An ecological scaling-up experiment confirmed that this subset of pollutants also affects typical freshwater microbial community assemblages. Contrary to our expectations and challenging established scientific opinion, the bioactivity of the mixtures was not predicted by the null mixture models, and the main drivers that were identified by GSA-QHTS were overlooked by the current effect assessment scheme. Our results suggest that current chemical effect assessment methods overlook a substantial number of ecologically dangerous chemical pollutants and introduce a new operational framework for their systematic identification.

Concepts: Scientific method, Biology, Population ecology, Affect, Chemical substance, Experiment, Mixture model, Sensitivity analysis


Seabird population changes are good indicators of long-term and large-scale change in marine ecosystems, and important because of their many impacts on marine ecosystems. We assessed the population trend of the world’s monitored seabirds (1950-2010) by compiling a global database of seabird population size records and applying multivariate autoregressive state-space (MARSS) modeling to estimate the overall population trend of the portion of the population with sufficient data (i.e., at least five records). This monitored population represented approximately 19% of the global seabird population. We found the monitored portion of the global seabird population to have declined overall by 69.7% between 1950 and 2010. This declining trend may reflect the global seabird population trend, given the large and apparently representative sample. Furthermore, the largest declines were observed in families containing wide-ranging pelagic species, suggesting that pan-global populations may be more at risk than shorter-ranging coastal populations.

Concepts: Sample, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Demographic economics, World population, Carrying capacity, Population growth


A central goal of population ecology is to identify the factors that regulate population growth. Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in eastern North America re-colonize the breeding range over several generations that result in population densities that vary across space and time during the breeding season. We used laboratory experiments to measure the strength of density-dependent intraspecific competition on egg laying rate and larval survival and then applied our results to density estimates of wild monarch populations to model the strength of density dependence during the breeding season. Egg laying rates did not change with density but larvae at high densities were smaller, had lower survival, and weighed less as adults compared to lower densities. Using mean larval densities from field surveys resulted in conservative estimates of density-dependent population reduction that varied between breeding regions and different phases of the breeding season. Our results suggest the highest levels of population reduction due to density-dependent intraspecific competition occur early in the breeding season in the southern portion of the breeding range. However, we also found that the strength of density dependence could be almost five times higher depending on how many life-stages were used as part of field estimates. Our study is the first to link experimental results of a density-dependent reduction in vital rates to observed monarch densities in the wild and show that the effects of density dependent competition in monarchs varies across space and time, providing valuable information for developing robust, year-round population models in this migratory organism.

Concepts: Biology, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Population density, Experiment, Danaus, Jan Krzysztof Kluk


A global trend of a warming climate may seriously affect species dependent on sea ice. We investigated the impact of climate on the Baltic ringed seals (Phoca hispida botnica), using historical and future climatological time series. Availability of suitable breeding ice is known to affect pup survival. We used detailed information on how winter temperatures affect the extent of breeding ice and a climatological model (RCA3) to project the expected effects on the Baltic ringed seal population. The population comprises of three sub-populations, and our simulations suggest that all of them will experience severely hampered growth rates during the coming 90 years. The projected 30 730 seals at the end of the twenty-first century constitutes only 16 % of the historical population size, and thus reduced ice cover alone will severely limit their growth rate. This adds burden to a species already haunted by other anthropogenic impacts.

Concepts: Population ecology, Climate, Pinniped, Global warming, Polar bear, Ringed Seal, Saimaa Ringed Seal, Pusa


Segments of identity by descent (IBD) detected from high-density genetic data are useful for many applications, including long-range phase determination, phasing family data, imputation, IBD mapping and heritability analysis in founder populations. We present Refined IBD, a new method for IBD segment detection. Refined IBD achieves both computational efficiency and highly accurate IBD segment reporting by searching for IBD in two steps. The first step (identification) uses the GERMLINE algorithm to find shared haplotypes exceeding a length threshold. The second step (refinement), evaluates candidate segments with a probabilistic approach to assess the evidence for IBD. Like GERMLINE, Refined IBD allows for IBD reporting on a haplotype level, which facilitates determination of multi-individual IBD and allows for haplotype-based downstream analyses. To investigate the properties of Refined IBD, we simulate SNP data from a model with recent super-exponential population growth that is designed to match UK data. The simulation results show that Refined IBD achieves a better power/accuracy profile than fastIBD or GERMLINE. We find that a single run of Refined IBD achieves greater power than 10 runs of fastIBD. We also apply Refined IBD to SNP data for samples from the UK and from Northern Finland, and describe the IBD sharing in these data sets. Refined IBD is powerful, highly accurate, easy to use, and is implemented in Beagle version 4.

Concepts: Genetics, Demography, Population, Population ecology, Accuracy and precision, Segment, World population, Carrying capacity


BACKGROUND: Information on the age structure within populations of an endangered species can facilitate effective management. The Blue Mountains Water Skink (Eulamprus leuraensis) is a viviparous scincid lizard that is restricted to < 40 isolated montane swamps in south-eastern Australia. We used skeletochronology of phalanges (corroborated by mark-recapture data) to estimate ages of 222 individuals from 13 populations. RESULTS: These lizards grow rapidly, from neonatal size (30 mm snout-vent length) to adult size (about 70 mm SVL) within two to three years. Fecundity is low (mean 2.9 offspring per litter) and is affected by maternal body length and age. Offspring quality may decline with maternal age, based upon captive-born neonates (older females gave birth to slower offspring). In contrast to its broadly sympatric (and abundant) congener E. tympanum, E. leuraensis is short-lived (maximum 6 years, vs 15 years for E. tympanum). Litter size and offspring size are similar in the two species, but female E. leuraensis reproduce annually whereas many E. tympanum produce litters biennially. Thus, a low survival rate (rather than delayed maturation or low annual fecundity) is the key reason why E. leuraensis is endangered. Our 13 populations exhibited similar growth rates and population age structures despite substantial variation in elevation, geographic location and swamp size. However, larger populations (based on a genetic estimate of effective population size) contained older lizards, and thus a wider variance in ages. CONCLUSION: Our study suggests that low adult survival rates, as well as specialisation on a rare and fragmented habitat type (montane swamps) contribute to the endangered status of the Blue Mountains Water Skink.

Concepts: Demography, Population, Population ecology, Lizard, Skink, Population growth, Lygosominae, Eulamprus


BACKGROUND: Coevolution with parasites and population size are both expected to influence the evolution of mating rates. To gain insights into the interaction between these dual selective factors, we used populations from a coevolution experiment with the red flour beetle, Tribolium castaneum, and its microsporidian parasite, Nosema whitei. We maintained each experimental population at two different population sizes. We assayed the mating behaviour of both males and females from coevolved and paired non-coevolved control populations after 24 generations of coevolution with parasites. RESULTS: Males from large, coevolved populations (i.e. ancestors were exposed to parasites) showed a reduced eagerness to mate compared to males from large, non-coevolved populations. But in small populations, coevolution did not lead to decreased male mating rates. Coevolved females from both large and small populations appeared to be more willing to accept mating than non-coevolved females. CONCLUSIONS: This study provides unique, experimental insights into the combined roles of coevolving parasites and population size on the evolution of mating rate. Furthermore, we find that males and females respond differently to the same environmental conditions. Our results show that parasites can be key determinants of the sexual behaviour of their hosts.

Concepts: Sexual intercourse, Male, Female, Population ecology, Fungus, Sex, Coevolution, Tenebrionidae