Ecological research in images

(Click the below image to view the photo gallery.) This week, the American Museum of Natural History launched the exhibit “Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies” which explores the images produced by scientists while performing research. The images range from bug genitalia to staghorn coral (see video at the end of this post). As quoted in a recent Wired Science article, “‘A lot of people come to the museum under [the] impression that we just look at stuff in dusty jars, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,’ said zoologist Mark Siddall, curator of the museum’s new exhibit. ‘There’s a lot of solid, cutting-edge research going on here with incredibly advanced technology.’” Dave Mosher explained in the Wired Science article that images like these are a large part of any scientific endeavor, but often times, these images are filed away—never to be seen by the public. Of course, there are journals that publish images alongside the research articles. While they are all accessible through searches, these images are not typically displayed like those that are being featured in the AMNH’s new exhibit. The above photo gallery presents only some of the images that have been featured in the Ecological Society of America’s journals over the last decade or so. Click on the image to scroll through and learn a bit about the research corresponding with each image. Many of the images featured in ESA journals are taken by the researchers themselves. Browse all of the cover images on ESA’s journals...

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Panda paradox: Which came first, a taste for bamboo or a distaste for meat?

This post contributed by Monica Kanojia, Administrative Assistant/Governance for ESA While a vegetarian lifestyle is a choice made by omnivorous humans, the panda population may have been forced to convert  to a vegetarian diet between 2 and 7 million years ago to ensure survival. The preference for bamboo is unusual for pandasbecause they are classified as carnivores  even though their diet is 99% bamboo. Even more unusual is the fact that their digestive system is unable to process cellulose, the major component of plant cell walls. According to research published in Nature, the bamboo diet is both influenced by genetics, and it depends on the digestive microbes present in the panda gut. Everything from what we eat, to what we taste, to how we eat is determined by our genetics. Umami—the basic taste associated with an amino acid common in protein heavy foods like meat—is sensed through the T1R gene family in carnivores. But in pandas, the T1R gene family has experienced mutations causing the inactivation of the T1R1 gene, making it a pseudogene. Pseudogenes have either lost protein coding ability or are no longer expressed in the cell. Ruiqiang Li and the team who sequenced the genome found that the malfunction of the T1R1 gene occurred relatively recently in the panda lineage: Estimated loss was about 4.2 million years ago. The malfunction of the umami taste receptor may explain why pandas have a preference for bamboo versus meat. Gene mutations are random and can change the habits of an organism, affecting its entire existence. In the case of the pandas, it changed the way pandas perceived meat. Despite the loss of taste for meat the digestive system of the pandas remained able to process it because all the enzymes required to were still present in their system. The ability to process plant material on the other hand was not natural. According to Li et al.’s research pandas do not have the necessary enzymes to digest bamboo, hinting at the idea that their ability to do so is dependent upon their gut microbes. Luckily for the endangered pandas, according to a molecular analysis conducted by Li and his colleagues, they have a very high rate of genetic variation in spite of their low population numbers. The abundance of some genetic changes within the gene pool can be reduced by natural selection, while other “more favorable” mutations may accumulate and result in adaptive changes; this may be part of the reason why the panda population converted from meat eaters to plant eaters as well. Logically, it would go as follows: The panda population experienced a mutation affecting taste buds which...

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