Mismatched feet may be a sign of population stress.
© Lens et al.
Asymmetric bodies fuel arguments over ecological risk.
Birds with one foot bigger than the other are showing signs of stress, say Belgian ecologists. The study backs the controversial idea that measuring body asymmetries could signal that a species is at risk.
Researchers at the University of Antwerp measured the feet of taita thrushes from three remaining pockets of their native forest in Kenya. Those from the most disturbed area showed eight times more difference between the size of their left and right feet than the least disturbed - a sign of future decline, they say1.
In general, the studies that find a correlation are the ones that get published; those that don’t, rarely make it into print. This issue has given ’fluctuating asymmetry’ a chequered history, with as many sceptics as believers.
Finding the mechanism underlying the disparity will be key to settling the debate. "We’re not at the stage that we understand enough about it and why in some cases it works and others it doesn’t," says conservation biologist Andrew Balmford at the University of Cambridge, UK.
Lens argues that the foot measure in thrushes reveals an indirect link between asymmetry and survival. It is an indicator of a male’s overall quality, he suggests - important to females, who choose the most symmetrical mates. Thus increased asymmetry may imply that a male is less fit. "People wrongly assume that because the differences are so small, the impact or biological relevance is also small," says Lens.
Many who have studied fluctuating asymmetry will not be convinced of its general utility until it can be proven under controlled situations. "When people have examined fluctuating asymmetry and stress in experimental lab conditions, the basic incontrovertible finding is that there is no consistent linkage," argues Andrew Pomiankowski, a geneticist at University College London.
Lens and his colleagues acknowledge that previous work has suffered from confounding measurement errors. But they claim to have developed new statistical methods that accurately separate variation caused by asymmetry from measurement error.
Pomiankowski agrees that for this particular trait in this species, Lens and his group may have found a real difference, but that it can’t be assumed to work elsewhere. It will have to be determined on a case by case study, says Pomiankowski - there is no universal trait that will indicate an individual’s fitness.
Asymmetry measures might be most useful if they could pick up insidious, hard-to-detect threats, suggests Balmford, such as the spread of disease, rather than stresses resulting from habitat decline. There are about 1,350 thrushes in the region studied by Lens, but the most degraded area has a declining population and the fewest individuals.
VIRGINIA GEWIN | © Nature News Service
Dispersal of Fish Eggs by Water Birds – Just a Myth?
19.02.2018 | Universität Basel
Removing fossil fuel subsidies will not reduce CO2 emissions as much as hoped
08.02.2018 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
The historic first detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes far outside our galaxy opened a new window to understanding the universe. A...
A team led by Austrian experimental physicist Rainer Blatt has succeeded in characterizing the quantum entanglement of two spatially separated atoms by observing their light emission. This fundamental demonstration could lead to the development of highly sensitive optical gradiometers for the precise measurement of the gravitational field or the earth's magnetic field.
The age of quantum technology has long been heralded. Decades of research into the quantum world have led to the development of methods that make it possible...
Cardiovascular tissue engineering aims to treat heart disease with prostheses that grow and regenerate. Now, researchers from the University of Zurich, the Technical University Eindhoven and the Charité Berlin have successfully implanted regenerative heart valves, designed with the aid of computer simulations, into sheep for the first time.
Producing living tissue or organs based on human cells is one of the main research fields in regenerative medicine. Tissue engineering, which involves growing...
A team of scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg investigated optically-induced superconductivity in the alkali-doped fulleride K3C60under high external pressures. This study allowed, on one hand, to uniquely assess the nature of the transient state as a superconducting phase. In addition, it unveiled the possibility to induce superconductivity in K3C60 at temperatures far above the -170 degrees Celsius hypothesized previously, and rather all the way to room temperature. The paper by Cantaluppi et al has been published in Nature Physics.
Unlike ordinary metals, superconductors have the unique capability of transporting electrical currents without any loss. Nowadays, their technological...
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
12.04.2018 | Event News
18.05.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering
18.05.2018 | Information Technology
18.05.2018 | Information Technology