Lab News and Research Highlights

De-Extinction, Nomenclature, and the Law

09/06/2017

This week, our group was involved in a policy forum article in Science. People from the Department of Biogeography and the Institute of Environmental  and Technology Law of Trier University contributed to this paper by  Norman Wagner and colleagues. 

Our policy piece deals with de-extinction of animal species which no longer exist on our planet, such as mammoths species. New techniques  -  back-breeding, cloning, and genomic engineering  -  now provide the opportunity to attempt to resurrect extinct species. We discuss implications for conservation laws, which largely depend on zoological nomenclature, and laws regarding the release of genetically engineered species, which do not, and argue for unique naming of de-extinct species.

Wagner, N., A. Hochkirch, H. Martin, D. Matenaar, K. Rohde, F. Wacht, C. Wesch, S. Wirtz, R. Klein, S. Lötters, A. Proelss & M. Veith (2017): De-extinction, nomenclature, and the law. — Science, 356: 1016-1017.

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Joint European Forces to Mitigate Problems from Salamander Fungus

30/03/2017

Under the lead of Gent University / BE, the European Commission has granted EUR 900,000

for 36 months for the project "Mitigating a new infectious disease in salamanders to counteract
a loss o
f European biodiversity" (No 07.027731/2017/750768/SER/ENV.D.3.). Apart from
Trier University / GER, the following institutions from six countries are partners: Stichting Reptielen Amfibieën Vissen Onderzoek Nederland (RAVON) / NL;
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (C.N.R.S.) / F; Universita degli Studi di Genova (UNIGE) / I; Zoological Society of London / UK; Agencia Estatal Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientifica (CSIC) / ES; NATAGORA / BE.


The goal of this international research project is to collect data at the large scale to better understand the epidemiology of the dangerous salamander fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal) – and to eventually stem the expected tide of amphibian population declines and prevent mass extinctions. A webpage informs about the project.


The part of Trier University is to provide information on the presence/absence of Bsal in Germany. For this purpose, we sample fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) at 50 localities all over Germany. We swab up to 30 live individuals per site and subsequently use quantitative real time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to test for Bsal infections. Like all partners in this project we use the same standard protocols. 


In addition, we run a Bsal hotline (+49 - 651 - 201 4174) for emergency contact in case of observed salamander declines.


Salamander Fungus Research Goes On

15/03/2017

The salamander fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), has been identified as a serious threat to the amphibian diversity of the Western Palearctic. It is suggested that this pathogen is of Asian origin and has been introduced into Europe some years ago, with records so far known from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Apparently, Bsal is spreading in the wild, e.g. the "Eifel" in Germany. We have now developed a first epidemiological model that explores the effects of Bsal on host populations (fire salamander). The model suggests that disease outbreaks can occur at very low host densities so that natural populatiosn are at high risk of severe decline - or extinction. The research was conducted in collaboration with colleagues from Braunschweig and Zurich Universities and with the expertise of Wildlife Analysis GmbH,  Zurich.

Apart from these theoretical efforts, our field-based research and monitoring will continue from 2017 on. We have recently been able to obtain grants by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (Bundesamt für Naturschutz) and the European Commission Directorate-General Environment. 

Schmidt, B.R. C. Bozzuto, S. Lötters & S. Steinfartz (2017): Dynamics of host populations affected by the emerging fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans. — Royal Society Open Science, 4: 160801.


Dangerous Salamander Fungus Spreads...

01/11/2016

For some years now, we have to struggle with a new amphibian pathogen in Europe, the skin-eating salamander fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal). It kills salamanders and newts. Especially the Fire salamander is affected, while frogs and toads seem fine with Bsal. Apparently of Asian origin, there is evidence that Bsal is now emerging in its invasive European range, although this is not proven with certainty yet. Bsal is considered a serious threat to Western Palearctic amphibian diversity. 

Our ongoing research — in collaboration with Biostation Aachen, Biostation Düren, Braunschweig University, Ghent University, RAVON, and others — has yielded 14 of 55 studied sites as Bsal-positive in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. In some of these, Bsal was not detected on earlier occasions. Read more in our scientific publication by Spitzen van-der-Sluijs et al. (2016). For updates and most recent Bsal findings, we recommend the webpage of RAVON.

Because of the threat by Bsal and to aid mitigation strategies and conservation action, we for the first time have modelled the potential distribution of this fungus for the region where it is so far recorded in Europe. In this study, we created various models with different data and assumptions. As a novelty, we also incorporated fine-scale weather data, which allowed us to emphasize predictors in accordance with the known pathogen's biology. In this way, we were able to appreciate Bsal's invasion potential in geographic space and to identify areas which are of high invasion risk, such as the Black Forest.


Spitzen-van der Sluijs, A., A. Martel, J. Asselberghs, E.K. Bales, W. Beukema, M.C. Bletz, L. Dalbeck, E. Goverse, A. Kerres, T. Kinet, K. Kirst, A. Laudelout, L.F. Marin da Fonte, A. Nöllert, D. Ohlhoff, J. Sabino-Pinto, B.R. Schmidt, J. Speybroeck, F. Spikmans, S. Steinfartz, M. Veith, M. Vences, N. Wagner, F. Pasmans & S. Lötters (2016): Expanding distribution of lethal amphibian fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans in Europe. — Emerging Infectious Diseases, 22: 1286-1288.

 

Feldmeier, S., L. Schefczyk, N. Wagner, G. Heinemann, M. Veith & S. Lötters (2016): Present and future high risk zones for the spreading lethal salamander chytrid fungus in its invasive range in Europe using bioclimate and weather extremes. PLoS ONE, 11: e0165682.



Diversification and Niche Conservatism in an African Frog Since the Miocene

23/10/2016

The Mascarene ridged frog (Ptychadena mascareniensis species complex) is known from many humid savannas and open forests of mainland Africa, Madagascar, the Seychelles and the Mascarene Islands. In a recent study (Zimkus et al. 2017; online first now), by multiple collaborators, we demonstrate high levels of genetic differentiation with ten distinct lineages, and that Central Africa is diversity hotspot for these frogs. Further, we show that most speciation took place throughout the Miocene, including 'Out-of-Africa' overseas dispersal. Interestingly, the bioclimatic niche was remarkably well conserved, with most species tolerating similar temperature and rainfall conditions common to the Central African region. The P. mascareniensis complex provides insights into how bioclimatic niche shaped
the current biogeographic patterns with niche conservatism being exhibited by the Central African radiation
and niche divergence shaping populations in West Africa and Madagascar.

Zimkus, B.M., L.P. Lawson, M.F. Barej, C.D. Barratt, A. Channing, K.M. Dash, J.M. Dehling, L. Du Preez, P.-S. Gehring, E. Greenbaum, V. Gvoždík, J. Harvey, J. Kielgast, C. Kusamba, Z.T. Nagy, M. Pabijan, J. Penner, M.-O. Rödel, M. Vences & S. Lötters (2017): Leapfrogging into new territory: How Mascarene ridged frogs diversified across Africa and Madagascar to maintain their ecological niche. — Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 106: 254-269.



The DZG "Masterpreis" 2016 Goes to Our Lab

15/09/2016

The German Zoological Society DZG (Deutsche Zoologische Gesellschaft) has awarded Sarah S. Bisanz for her MEd thesis in Biology entitled "Aktivitätsräume von Ameerega trivittata im amazonischen Tieflandregenwald in Peru". In her study, Sarah examined the home range behavior of a Neotropical poison frog at Panguana Biological Fieldstation in a lowland rainforest of Amazonian Peru. Ameerega trivittata is one of our focal taxa when studying evoluton and dispersal of Amazonian biota. Life history information is important when trying to understand historical processes.

Sarah's fieldwork was carried out in 2014. We have repeated the same study in the following year. A scientific publication on the combined results has recently been published, reporting site fidelity over consecutive years and for the first time female home range behavior in Ameerega trivittata, so far only known in males of this poison frog species.

Neu, C.P., S.S. Bisanz, J.A. Nothacker, M. Mayer & S. Lötters (2016): Male and female home range behavior in the Neotropical poison frog Ameerega trivittata (Anura, Dendrobatidae) over two consecutive years. — South American Journal of Herpetology, 11: 149-156.

The Meaning of Colors

30/08/2016

One of our key research topics is the evolution and the function of warning colors (aposematism) in toxic prey. We study Neotropical harlequin frogs, Atelopus spumarius and related forms from the Amazon basin and adjacent areas.

Interesting in these frogs is:
(1) They are all toxic and possess the highly potent tetrodotoxin (TTX), a substance known from many animals including puffer fish (for more information on TTX see our recent Quick Guide in Current Biology). The degree of intra- and interspecific variation is subject to ongoing research.

(2) These harlequin frogs highly vary in dorsal color conspicuousness: some are vividly colored while others are virtually non-aposematic.

(3) Some have colorful ventral sides and some even hand/foot soles. These are red and we consider them to represent flash marks to warn potential predators. Actually, we have been able to show that red hand/foot soles can almost only be seen by birds. In contrast, dorsal colors are seen by a variety of potential predators including crabs. See an interesting video on a crab predation attempt here; the frog in the end is apparently too toxic for the crab.

Recent fieldwork by Daniela C. Rössler and Max N. Lorentz, doctorate candidates of the lab, has been very successful and they are currently analyzing relationships between color conspicuousness and toxicty aspects. For more videos from the field, see here.

Harlequin frogs are not the only amphibians with red hand/foot soles. This character is also notable in toads of the toxic genus Melanophryniscus; see here for the extraordinary Melanophryniscus admirabilis, a Critically Endangered species from southern Brazil.

Lorentz, M.N., A.N. Stokes, D.C. Rössler & S. Lötters (2016): Tetrodotoxin in animals. — Current Biology, 26: R870-R872.

 

New Poison Frog Book Out Now

16/05/2016

This new volume with more 500 pages and more than 200 color illustrations (about half of which are detailed scientific drawings) is published in the Conservation International field guide series. It treats all aposematic, i.e. colorful and toxic, species in the poison frog family Dendrobatidae which occur in the Andean countries of South America.

This piece of work is the result of a collaborative work by many contributors. It contains information on species' adult and larval morphology, alkaloid profiles, natural history, calls, reproduction, distribution and threats.

The book can be obtained from Chimaira.

Kahn, T.R., E. La Marca, S. Lötters, J.L. Brown, E. Twomey & A. Amézquita (2016): Aposemtaic poison frogs (Anura; Dendrobatidae) of the Andean countries Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. — Conservation International, Washington D.C. (USA), 582 pp.

Macroecology Meets Biogeography

17/03/2016

We have recently hosted the first joint conference of the "Arbeitskreis Biogeographie" (VGDH) and the "Arbeitskreis Makroökologie" (GfÖ) (15-17 March 2016). Both macroecology and biogeography, besides their own nature, show a large overlap in topics, concepts and methods. The goal of the scientific meeting was to learn more about the other discipline’s scopes and to identify synergies. We had more than 50 participants from seven countries who found the meeting was a successful cometogether. The program included 26 talks and 5 posters. For more information, abstracts etc. see here. We are grateful to all participants and to all people from our own department who helped with the organization.


Disentangling Chemical Communication in Poison Frogs: Cues & Signals

01/07/2015

Poison frogs show a complex parental care behavior. Several species lay eggs on land and later transport the tadpoles on one parent's back singly to small water bodies in plants (phytotelms). For some years now, it is known that Ranitomeya variabilis from the Amazon rainforest of Peru (and maybe other species) only choose phytotelms that are unoccupied by conspecific tadpoles and sometimes by those of other species (such as commonly Hyloxalus azureiventris). First the small water bodies do not provide resources for the development of more than one larva. Second, Ranitomeya larvae are cannibals and would attack each other. In our earlier studies, carried out by Dr. Lisa M. Schulte, we showed that nurse frogs chose the right phytotelm on the basis of chemical recognition (Schulte et al. 2011). This opened an avenue for further research questions.

We are a remarkable step further now! Combining chemical analyses with in-situ bioassays, we identified the molecular formulas of the chemical compounds triggering the nurse frog's behavior (collaboration was with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ; fundig was by the German Research Foundation - DFG). Ranitomeya variabilis and Hyloxalus azureiventris both produce distinct chemical compound combinations. This leads us to conclude that two separate communication systems are at work. In an ecological context, we classify the conspecific R. variabilis compounds as chemical cues - that is, they are only advantageous to the receiver (nurse frog), not the emitters (tadpoles). The heterospecific compounds, we suggest are chemical signals. These are advantageous to the emitters (heterospecific tadpoles) and likely also to the receivers (nurse frog). Due to these assumed receiver benefits, the heterospecific compounds are possibly synomones which are advantageous to both emitter and receiver. This is a very rare communication system between animal species, especially in vertebrates. Read more in the 1st July issue of PLoS ONE (Schulte et al. 2015).

Schulte, L.M. et al. (2015): Decoding and discrimination of chemical cues and signals: Avoidance of predation and competition during parental care behavior in sympatric poison frogs. — PLoS ONE 10: e0129929.