biologe

Blog and online journal with editorial content about science, art and nature.

Tag: phylogeny

Systematics and biology of termites and about their phoretic associations

They live in eusocial communities, but are not closer related to ants or bees. Termites belong to the cockroaches.

 

Queen, king and castes

 

Usually one queen and one king are reproductive and act as heads of the nest. The different work fields of a nest are executed by infertile specimens, which can show very different and specialized body shapes. The diversity of different castes is in phylogenetically „primitive“ taxa lower than in „higher developed“ termite groups.

 

As example specimens of a deadwood species from Italy

 

This species was found in deadwood of a small forest in Portici (Gulf of Naples, Italy) and might represent the taxon Kalotermitidae. This taxon branches off rather basically  in the systematic tree of termites. Nest work can be taken over by nymphs of later alates.

 

deadwood-termites from Italy, Youtube: copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, April 2020

 

 

How is wood-eating possible?

 

Wood eating termites bear bacteria and protozoans  in their digestive tracts, which perform the digestion of cellulose.

 

Evolution, sister taxon and endosymbionts

 

Termites (Isoptera) evolved within the cockroaches (Blattodea). According to modern systematics (e.g.  Beccaloni & Eccleton, 2011) the cockroach taxon Cryptocercidae is the sister-clade of the termites. But there are controversial theories existing.

According to such reconstructions, the last common ancestor of cockroach taxon Cryptocercidae and termites possessed bacterial and protozoan endosymbionts. Molecular data proved that endosymbionts in both groups are closely related to each other. The last common ancestor of both groups showed in case of their indeed sister-group-relation a tendency towards social communities. Cryptocercidae live temporarily in bigger groups together with their offspring.

 

Subsocial lifestyle in Cryptocercidae

 

Cockroaches of the Cryptocercidae as putative sister taxon of termites live inside galleries in deadwood and feed on wood fibres. At least one parent and its nymphs live subsocially inside their galleries. Cryptocercidae adults and nymphs groom each other, and parents feed juveniles with wood fragments afer these had passed their anus openings.

 

According to recent systematic/ phylogenetic reconstructions the Kalotermitidae belong to the basically branching termite groups. Such basic groups of termites still show a low diversity of castes only.

 

Associates, commensalism and phoresy

 

Like ants or bees, termites share their nests regularly with associates of other groups of animals,

often mites and nematodes. Some of these organisms use termites as carriers for a transport over bigger distances. details of such associations between insects and mites are not well studied yet. But carrier-passenger-situations with transfer („taxi“-) purposes are called phoresy. Phoresy ist mostly considered as a neutral association between different organisms and is thus interpreted as commensalism. Commensalism is differed from strategies like parasiticm or symbiosis and requires that two organisms in association do not harm or noticeably benefit each other. The term commensalism often includes associations, in which the true context for both organism partners is simply not understood yet.

 

Not yet mites of the Gamasina (Parasitiformes) were reared in greater numbers out of my Italian termite substrate. They might represent phoretic cohabitants of those termites. Other mite species of different mite groups (Parasitiformes and Acariformes) were only found in smaller numbers and died out too quickly for collections and determinations under my culture conditions, unfortunately already before the beginning of my shootings. seemingly microclimatic conditions had become too unfavorable.

 

Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Berlin 2019 – 2020, all rights reserved

Diving, feather cleaning and water bathing of the Inca tern Larosterna inca


Inca terns live along the South American Pacific coast and breed along rocky coastlines of Peru and North Chile. They can be easily identified by their grey plumages, their distinctly red beaks and feeds as well by their conspicious white feather curls on the bases of their beaks.

 

Geographic distribution and life-strategy aspects of Larosterna inca

 

Larosterna inca breeds inside rocky walls of coastlines either inside rocky cavities or in old nesting holes of other seabird species. Its hunting ground is the  Humboldt Current, which is famous for its cold temperature, but also its enormous fish wealth. To increase its chances for fishing success, the Inca tern might follow sea lions, cormorants and whales  and is then hunting fishes, which were flushed up by these bigger sea animals. They also follow fisher boats to catch some rests of their fishery.

 

Phylogenetic (systematic) relationships

 

According to phylogenetic reconstructions L. inca, which represents the only recent species of its genus, branches off in the Animalia tree within the monophyletic clade of terns. Based on DNA sequences E. S. Bridge, A. W. Jones and A. J. Baker reconstructed in their 2005 paper (Molecular phylogenetics and evolution) a sister-clade relationship between Larosterna and species of the taxa Sterna, Thalasseus and Chlidonias (mitochondrial DNA was used to reconstruct the tern phylogeny).

Terns themselves seem representing an own clade (Sternidae), being for example based on characters of behavioral pattern, and are considered as a sister taxon of gulls (Laridae).

 

Filming conditions and filming locality

 

My footage was recorded in the Zoo Berlin, where terns together with other sea birds inhabit a for tourists accessible free-flight enclosure. There I captured scenes about the diving and „fishing“ behavior (specimens fished repeatedly wooden sticks) as well as their plumage cleaning activities on shore and their conspicuous plumage cleaning behaviors via extended bathing trips inside areas of low water. Size of my entire video is 4K. But parts of the scenes were originally recorded in Full HD to enable a better slow motion effect based on 100 frames per second. Such footage was subsequently digitally magnified into the 4K size to fit in the entire video project.

All behavioral activities are at first presented in a slow motion (ca. three to four times slowlier than  original speed), then in the much faster original speed.

 

Plumage cleaning

 

Plumage cleaning is part of the hygienic behaviors of birds. Feathers can only stay in full function, thermoregulation and flying, when dirt and parasites are removed regularly. Typical plumage parasites are represented by feather mites (no phylogenetic clade), which consist of taxa of the Astigmata (Acariformes) and of taxa of the Dermanyssoidea (Parasitiformes). Feather lice represent  a subclade of the (Phthiraptera = lice), named Mallophaga. The monophyletic situation of Mallophaga is seemingly doubtful.

 

Plumage cleaning and hunting behavior of Larosterna inca, video (4K9, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth. Please like my video on youtube too.

 

Putative reasons for plumage cleaning behaviors

 

I couldn’t research sufficient information about specific plumage parasites of Larosterna inca. There is indication that terns generally are relatively free of predators and parasites. Seemingly, plumage parasites of this particular species are still a more or less open research field. But the existence of a regular and visibly careful plumage cleaning might indicate a sensitiveness for corresponding parasites. L. inca can be according to literature (e.g. W. Pieters et al., Avian Diseases, 2014) fatally infested with the trematode Ichthyocotylurus erraticus.

 

Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Zoo Berlin July/ September 2019

Western lowland gorilla: locomotion, eating and facial expressions

We humans are nothing else than a species of great Apes and thus belong to the clade of the primates. Gorillas and chimpanzees represent our closest recent relatives.

 

Relationship to Homo sapiens

 

In earlier times, it was even stated that the two chimpanzee species and the two gorilla species altogether were the sister-clade of the Homo sapiens. This is not the standard of knowledge any more. Due to molecular evidence and other characters, it could be reconstructed that chimpanzees alone represent the sistergroup of modern humans. Gorillas are sister-taxon of the clade consisting of cimpanzees and Homo sapiens.

 

Knuckle-walking

 

The consequence of this systematic scenario is interesting, as the conspicuous mode of locomotion that can be found in gorillas and chimpanzees, the so called knucklewalking, might have also existed in very „primitive“ and extinct human species.

 

Two gorilla species

 

Another newer finding is that the four subspecies of gorillas (western lowland gorilla, Cross River gorilla, eastern lowland gorilla and mountain gorilla) represent two species, the western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei). Visible in my film footage are specimens of the western gorilla, more exactly western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) from the Zoologischer Garten Berlin.

 

Preferred habitats

 

Gorillas live preferably on the ground, but are also good tree climbers. An exception is the mountain gorilla, which seems to avoid tree climbing. Gorillas even do not avoid water, but only access  water bodies, in which they can stand.

 

Social structure

 

The social structure of gorilla groups can be simplyfied as consisting of one dominant male (silverback), his females and subadult specimens. In case several adult males remain in a group, only the dominant silverback is reproductive. The normal case is that adult males leave their groups, remain for a while alone and try to find access to a new group. Interestingly, in gorillas also females leave their groups after adolescence . As a result, females of a group are usually not closer related with each other.

 

Diet

 

Gorillas represent the biggest great apes, but usually are vegetarians, preferring fruits, seeds and leaves as food. To gain enough nutrients, they need to invest a major time of their daily activities with eating. It is still unknown, which role carnivorous food plays for these apes. Some were observed during „termite fishing“. It might be that insects and smaller vertebrate might enrich their diet. In order to grasp smaller food particles, gorillas possess a quite well developed hand motor-skills, as visible in my footage.

Western lowland gorilla filmed in Berlin Zoologischer Garten, copyrights Stefan F. Wirth, Please like my videos also on youtube, in case you like them.

 

Facial expressions

 

As all gorillas, also the western lowland gorilla is characterized by very well developed facial expression abilities. it’s a character, which they share with chimpanzees and humans due to a common evolutionary event in the early ancestor line of the great apes. A differentiated facial expression, comparable with the one of humans, requires a suitable innervation, skull muscle origins and specific numbers and shapes of facial muscles.

 

Culture and the use of selfmade tools

 

It was earlier thought that cultural abilities and the use of selfmade tools would be unique for humans. The modern primatology could proof that this is not true. Both characters evolved obviously in the ancestor line of the great apes. Especially chimpanzees and gorillas are known for using tools, for example in order to perform termite-fishing. The transfer of a specific knowledge or abilities via teaching to the offspring is named culture. Also gorillas are able to do so.

 

Berlin, July/November 2018, Copyrights Stefan F. Wirth