Organisms and their environment: Dangerous liaisons

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Bioenergetics for management and conservation is a section of the Evolutionary dynamics and management application course at University of Pau and Pays de l’Adour (Anglet, France). In this course, 2nd

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Organisms and their environment: Dangerous liaisonsby Marius Dhamelincourt and Charlie Sarran

Published by Charlotte Recapet the October 14, 2019 on 11:15 AM

Preface

        Whatever the incredulous think, organisms are necessarily linked to their environment to survive, science says. However, this relation, unstable, can be problematic for those concerned when variations overtake their acceptable thresholds. Although often natural, these variations can be exacerbated by anthropogenic actions, like putting fish on a grill.

        Global changes are often reduced to temperature increases, illustrated in the media with alarming news about ice melting and forest fires. While many people thus omit the complex mechanisms behind this black box, the necessity of a more “polar bear’s” respectful way of life is commonly accepted. In order to better understand how to respect such adorable creatures, scientists need to investigate their relationships with the environment.

Chapter 1: Shells under investigation

        In order to scrutinize these relationships, selected species must be accessible, easy to catch/manipulate and in sufficient number. For instance, the study of the great white shark aggressivity over humans would require too many intern’s sacrifices. In response to this challenge, a valiant research team from Germany looked for the importance of these relations by studying in the Rhine a remarkable (body and soul), accessible, cheap and lovely species: Corbicula fluminea, a shell. This study is related to the mass mortalities events of this species, which occurred in the summer, especially in that of 2003. Their investigations aim to understand how these organisms are linked with their environment, and their reactions to changes.

Chapter 2: Shells cooking in science

Many tools exist to perform this type of search. Field searches can involve the scientist’s life (be bitten by a pigeon is a terrible experience…) and obstruct a long-term individual experiment. Now that researchers have selected the perfect organism, they must choose an appropriate way to analyse their problem. For this shell, scientists chose to use a modelling approach, a method dark and full of terrors. More precisely, they modelled several aspects of the metabolism of this organism at different scales: individual and population levels, using respectively DEBM (Dynamic Energy Budget Model) and PSPM (Physiologically Structured Population Model). This method, widespread in ecology, consists to “simulate the annual growth in length and mass and the reproductive success under different environmental scenarios”. This approach is suitable because an organism can respond differently relatively to their peers. Such fact can be proved by looking at many places and species, humans included… Ultimately, scientists aim to better understand the complex relation between the energy available in the environment and its utilization by shells.

Chapter 3: Corbicula’s deadly summers

Heat waves are often responsible for changes that every scientist can observe on living organisms. For instance, it is known that coral reefs are affected by increased temperatures, as shown in an article published in “Free Radical Biology and Medicine”. Many other examples such as lobster’s behavioural response to boiling water could be developed. Regarding our shellfish, scientists found an interesting pattern comforting our previous remark: temperature causes shell’s mortalities… Oh wait, no, it’s more complicated.

In fact, mass mortalities events were probably related to a melting pot of many events like temperature increases and/or starvation. Moreover, these situations are also in relation with individual conditions. Indeed, researchers hypothesized that a combination of factors (biotic and/or abiotic), usually non-lethal under regular summers, can be problematic at high temperatures. Unfortunately, models developed were not able to explain completely the observed mass lethal events.

Chapter 4: Life is not so simple

Researchers finally enhance the comprehension of population dynamics, enlightening its complex mechanisms. However, in such cases, wishing to be exhaustive is useless and unproductive, like politics. That is why scientists look for compromise between easy-to-use and complicated (highly realistic) tools. For example, the authors of the Corbicula’s study proposed that it could be interesting to test other parameters, such as parasitism.

To put it in a nutshell (you got it, right?), things are not always what they seem to be, even in environmental studies. Main hypotheses are not always validated, and measures considered can be only a part of a more complex system, or sometimes even unappropriated. On the flip side, model’s development can help to understand the life cycle of organisms like Corbicula, thus helping to manage populations concerned.

Cited study: Petter, G., Weitere, M., Richter, O., Moenickes, S., 2014. Consequences of altered temperature and food conditions for individuals and populations: a Dynamic Energy Budget analysis for Corbicula fluminea in the Rhine. Freshwater Biology 59, 832–846. https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.12307

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