Slimy lips

Southern tubelip feeds on corals by kissing

Labropsis autralis feeding on corals

As one of only a few fish species, the tubelip wrasse Labropsis australis is able to feed on corals. Specialised lips protect the fish from being hurt, as Victor Huertas and David Bellwood show.

Lips of Labropsis australis bear lamellaeThe tubelip wrasse Labropsis australis, or Southern tubelip, looks like a normal fish. But it appears to have highly modified lips, as Victor Huertas and David Bellwood reveal after making a high-resolution image of the fish’s mouth. The lips form a protruding tube when the mouth is closed; they are thick and fleshy, bear lamellae much like a mushroom, and are covered with a thick layer of mucus, secreted by mucous glands.

That’s noteworthy, as most wrasses, the group of fish species to which Labropsis australis belongs, have thin, smooth lips that are neither slimy nor protruding.

The remarkable lips facilitate un unusual diet, the researchers found out. Living on the Great Barrier Reef off the north coast of Australia, Labropsis australis feeds on hard corals – and that’s not easy, because the corals have a sharp skeleton covered by a layer of tissue with venomous stinging nematocysts, like jellyfish have. No wonder that most fishes don’t touch them. But Labropsis australis seems not to care.

The biologists recorded the fish’s behaviour with a high-speed camera to see how it managed to feed on corals. Analyzing the footage, they saw how the fish approaches its meal, closes its mouth, pushes its fleshy lips against the coral, sealing them over a small area, and rapidly sucks off some of the coral’s mucus and flesh. This sucking is accompanied by an audible ‘tuk’; it’s just like kissing.

Mucus is the key factor that enables these fish to feed on corals, the authors suppose. The thick mucus layer prevents the sharp edges and nematocysts of the coral from damaging the fish.

Willy van Strien

Photos: © Victor Huertas and David Bellwood
Large: Southern tubelip Labropsis australis
Small: Image of the lips of Labropsis australis

The kissing tubelip wrasse on a video made by Victor Huertas and David Bellwoo

Huertas, V. & D.R. Bellwood, 2017. Mucus-secreting lips offer protection to suction-feeding corallivorous fishes. Current Biology 27: R399–R407. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.04.056

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Sweet snack

Wild bees can do without flowers – for a while

Andrena-bee visiting a flowerless shrub

When spring arrives in California, wild bees emerge before flowers appear that offer nectar, providing the animals with energy. To survive, they temporarily use sugary honeydew, as Joan Meiners and colleagues discovered.

It seems weird for bees to visit non-flowering shrubs, because they need flowers to find nectar, which contains sugars, and pollen, which contains protein; these nutrients are necessary for themselves and their larvae. Yet, in the Pinnacles National Park in California, Joan Meiners observed many wild bees of different species visiting shrubs on which no flower was to be found.

With a series of experiments, she and her colleagues found out what the bees were looking for at the non-flowering shrubs: the animals were accessing sugary honeydew, the sweet secretions of sap-feeding scale insects. It appeared that bees visit flowerless shrubs only early in the springtime, when they emerge while there are hardly any flowers blooming, and that all these bees belong to solitary species, not living in colonies where a stockpile of nectar is available. Apparently, in early spring honeydew is an alternative source of energy for these bees, a new discovery.

Now, the question is how the bees are able to find this alternative food source. They are specialists in detecting and distinguishing colours and scents. Flowers depend on bees for pollination, because as bees visit multiple flowers in succession, they transfer pollen from the stamens of one flower to the pistil of the next one, so that this second flower can grow seeds after fertilization. Because bees are indispensable, flowers attract them with showy scents, colours and shapes.

Still, bees manage to find the colourless, odourless honeydew as well.

Are they attracted by the black mold fungus that covers the honeydew? The researchers ruled out this possibility by painting a number of branches black: these branches were not visited by the bees. Do the scale insects form a clue to the honeydew? No, because if the sap-sucking insects were temporarily inactivated with a mild anti-insecticide, no bees were seen nearby; they only came when the scale insects were producing honeydew. But on the other hand, they did detect sticks on which the researchers had sprayed a sugar solution, and they did already within an hour.

The biologists propose that the bees are continuously looking for food, and if one bee locates some honeydew, other bees will notice and visit the food source as well.

Using honeydew as an extra source of energy, the bees can survive a period without nectar. But in the end they do need flowers, because the larvae cannot develop on a diet of sugars alone, but have to ingest a high amount of proteins, and therefore they need pollen. So, every female has to gather pollen for her offspring.

Once plants start flowering, bees lose their interest in honeydew-bearing shrubs and visit flowers instead. The mutual relationship between bees and flowers – where pollination is exchanged for food – is not jeopardized.

Willy van Strien

Photo: ©Paul G. Johnson

Meiners, J.M, T.L. Griswold, D.J. Harris & S.K.M. Ernest, 2017. Bees without flowers: before peak bloom, diverse native bees find insect-produced honeydew sugars. The American Naturalist, online May 30. Doi: 10.1086/692437

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Fast trapping device

Water flea has no chance against bladderwort bladders

Southern bladderwort possesses fast trapping device

There is no escape for a water flea that hits one of the submerged suction traps of bladderwort. Within a split second, the trapdoor opens and closes and the water flea has disappeared, as Simon Poppinga and colleagues show.

Some carnivorous plants, which feed on small animals, possess motile traps to capture insects or other prey. The fasted motile trapping device belongs to aquatic bladderwort species, according to Simon Poppinga and colleagues.

greater bladderwort, leaves with trapsThe stems with yellow flowers of these floating water plants are visible above water level, while the leaves, bearing bladder-like suction traps, are below surface. Using a high-speed camera, the researchers recorded the action of the suction process in Southern bladderwort bladders when trapping a water flea.

Each trap is filled with water, sometimes also with some air, and because water is continuously pumped out, there is a negative pressure within. The bladder entrance is closed with a flexible door which is fixed along the upper part, resting on a threshold and bulging outwards; it bears trigger hairs that are sensitive to touch.

As soon as a water flea touches a trigger hair, the door will invert its curvature, bulging inwards. In that position it can’t resist the water pressure and swings open. The water flea is sucked into the bladder with a velocity that increases to 4 meters per second. It is unable to interfere with the process in any way. As soon as it is in, the water flow decelerates. The strong acceleration and deceleration immobilize the animal and maybe even kill it. And if still alive, the water flea will die soon due to anoxia.

The door recloses and regains the convex curvature. The whole process took only 0.01 second, and within a couple of hours, the prey will be digested.

Willy van Strien

Large: Southern bladderwort. Abalg (via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons CC BY 3.0)
Small: leaves with suction traps of greater bladderwort. H. Zell (via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Poppinga, S., L.E. Daber, A.S. Westermeier, S. Kruppert, M. Horstmann, R. Tollrian & T. Speck, 2017. Biomechanical analysis of prey capture in the carnivorous Southern bladderwort (Utricularia australis). Scientific Reports 7: 1776. Doi:10.1038/s41598-017-01954-3

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In need of a ride

Tadpoles are in a great hurry to get away

A male splash-back poison frog transports each tadpole to a pool to grow up

Things go bad if sibling larvae of the splash-back poison frog Ranitomeya variabilis grow up together: only one of them will survive. So, as soon as an adult frog approaches, tadpoles try to climb on its back and to get a ride to a safe place, Lisa Schulte and Michael Mayer write.

Mating pairs of the splash-back poison frog Ranitomeya variabilis, that occurs in Peru, lay two to six eggs at the surface of small water bodies in plants, for instance Bromelia species. In such ‘phytotelmata’ the risk for the eggs to be found by a predator is small. Later, the male returns to retrieve each larva upon hatching and transports it on its back to an unoccupied phytotelm that he already selected. He then returns to fish the next larva out of the water, until all the young are singly housed in different phytotelmata.

It is necessary for the larvae to get separated from each other, as the tadpoles are cannibalistic. If they stay together, only one of them will survive and grow up.

In some cases, however, the male doesn’t return to retrieve the hatching larvae. In such case, the abandoned tadpoles actively seek transport, as Lisa Schulte and Michael Mayer show. They collected clutches of eggs, took them to the lab and kept them in small plastic cups. After the tadpoles hatched, they were kept together and the researchers introduced an adult frog. That frog was either a conspecific male or a conspecific female, or a male of a different species.

In all cases, the tadpoles approached the adult frog, and many of them tried to climb onto its back quickly. Some succeeded. They actually jumped on the frog’s back, the researchers report; it looked like an attack.

The tadpoles have a good reason to be so desperate. In a natural situation, a frog that shows up most likely is the male parent frog that revisits the phytotelm to save its young from cannibalism. The first tadpole to approach will be assisted to mount; the male will bend its back or push it up with its legs. After the male left with this lucky tadpole, there is no guarantee that he will return to get the other ones. If he can’t find an unoccupied phytotelm anymore, he will stay away. Hence the haste of the tadpoles.

But in the experiments, the visiting frog could also be a female, or a male of another species. In such cases, the tadpoles did not get any help. Yet they tried to get transport by mounting this frog on their own.

Obviously, the need to be saved is so high that the tadpoles don’t make any difference between their father and any other frog that happens to appear. And they had better not, because even a frog with no intention to bring tadpoles to a safe place may visit an unoccupied phytotelm, and rescue the hitchhiker.

However, when the researchers offered a plastic frog model, the tadpoles did not respond. They probably recognize a true frog by chemical cues.

Willy van Strien

Photo: John Clare (via Flickr. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Schulte, L.M. & M. Mayer, 2017. Poison frog tadpoles seek parental transportation to escape their cannibalistic siblings. Journal of zoology, 5 mei online. Doi: 10.1111/jzo.12472

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Rescue heroes

Birds free entangled group members from sticky seeds

Seychelles warbler on the ground runs a risk of becoming entangled in seeds

Seeds of the Pisonia tree can be dangerous for a little songbird like the Seychelles warbler: when these sticky seeds attach to its feathers, such a bird is not able to fly. Fortunately, the risk of entanglement is low, and in case of bad luck, help often arrives, as Martijn Hammers and Lyanne Brouwer observed.

Seychelles warblers lead a low-risk life on the tropical island of Cousin, belonging to the Republic of Seychelles: there are no natural enemies around that prey on the adult birds. High in the trees they safely glean insects from the leaves.

Seychelles warbler entangled in a cluster of seedsStill, they can be in trouble, Martijn Hammers and Lyanne Brouwer report. The most common tree, the Pisonia tree, produces seeds that become very sticky when they are ripe and fall to the ground. For foraging birds the risk of entanglement is low, but when they are on the ground to collect nest material – work performed by females – or to defend their territory, these seeds easily attach to their feathers; a bird may even get stuck in a cluster of seeds. That is bad luck. Just one of a few of these seeds can prevent a bird from flying, and cause it to die.

But if the victim is lucky, help will arrive. The biologists, who observed the behaviour of the Seychelles warblers during several years, sometimes saw a bird with sticky seeds attached. And in a few cases, another bird came to remove the seeds form the victim after having heard its alarm call. The helper picked and pulled the seeds off with his beak, rescuing the unfortunate animal.

Such rescue behaviour is rare and demanding. A helpful bird must be able to perceive what is going on, know what to do to help the victim and be willing to do it, putting itself at risk of becoming entangled as well. The helper is not just a random conspecific: in each case observed, it belonged to the victim’s family group. Often one or more grown-up young stay with their parents; also, a mother or grandmothermay join a breeding couple. In such cases, a family group lives in a territory, and relatives may help to rear the young. A rescue operation means that the family group remains intact and no help is lost.

The sticky Pisonia seeds do have a function. If they stick to a small songbird like the Seychelles warbler, the tree gains nothing. But more often, the seeds become attached to sea birds visiting the island. They have no difficulty flying – and take the seeds to another island. The tree has its seeds dispersed.

Willy van Strien

Photos: © Martijn Hammers

Hammers, M. & L. Brouwer, 2017. Rescue behaviour in a social bird: removal of sticky ‘bird-catcher tree’ seeds by group members. Behaviour 154: 403-411. Doi:10.1163/1568539X-00003428

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Biting prey

Fish with venomous fangs have many imitators

Fangblenny Petroscirtes breviceps mimics a venomous species

Meiacanthus fish species are armed with venomous fangs that deter predators. Many nonvenomous fish species protect themselves from being attacked by mimicking the aposematic colours and the behaviour of Meiacanthus species. A large research team unravelled the evolution of the venomous fish.

A predator fish expecting to easily ingest a small Meiacanthus fish will prove to be wrong. This prey is armed with sharp teeth that inject venom into its enemy. Disoriented, the predator will release its victim – and will not go after the same fish anymore.

Meiacanthus species are the only fish with venomous fangs. They belong to the group of the saber-toothed blennies or fangblennies (Nemophini), which all have a pair of enlarged, hollow canines in the lower jaw. Nicholas Casewell, together with a large research team, has shown that these fangs must have originated in the common ancestor of these blennies. But only species of the genus Meiacanthus developed venomous fangs. They possess venom glands at the base of the fangs and grooves on the fangs to deliver the venom into the wound.

According to the researchers, the venom does not cause pain upon injection, but it reduces the blood pressure in the predator, which becomes weakened and disoriented so that the prey can escape unharmed from its mouth. Blood pressure reduction appears to be such a bad experience that the predator fish will never try to ingest a Meiacanthus again. The venom was found to contain three compounds that had never been found in fish before.

Some non-venomous fangblennies, as well as many fish species from other groups, profit from the aversion that predators have to Meiacanthus species by looking the same and behaving the same. While not mounting a defence against predators themselves, they are still protected from attacks thanks to this mimicry.

What do non-venomous fangblennies use their fangs for? To eat, probably. This holds at least for all Plagiotremus species, which feed on dermal tissue, scales, mucus, and fins of larger fish. If they look like Meiacanthus species, they can easily approach their victims, which are reluctant to attack.

Willy van Strien

Petroscirtes breviceps, with nonvenomous fangs in the lower jaw. ©Alex Ribeiro
CT-scan of the venomous species Meiacanthus grammistes. ©Anthony Romilio (University of Queensland, Australia)

Casewell, N.R., J.C. Visser, K. Baumann, J. Dobson, H. Han, S. Kuruppu, M. Morgan, A. Romilio, V. Weisbecker, S.A. Ali, J. Debono, I. Koludarov, I.Que, G.C. Bird, G.M. Cooke, A. Nouwens, W.C. Hodgson, S.C. Wagstaff, K.L. Cheney, I. Vetter, L. van der Weerd, M.K. Richardson & B.G. Fry, 2017. The evolution of fangs, venom, and mimicry systems in blenny fishes. Current Biology, March 30 online. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.067

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Micro army

Cloud of semiautonomous pincers protects sea urchin

Collector sea urchin released a cloud of pincers

When a hungry fish approaches, the collector sea urchin releases a cloud of small biting, venomous pincers that deter its enemy before it has attacked. This peculiar defensive strategy is revealed by Hannah Sheppard-Brennand and colleagues.

In addition to their prominent spines, sea urchins and sea stars possess numerous smaller appendages as well: little pincer-like heads on a movable stalk, called pedicellariae. The pincers have different functions, such as catching food or removing debris – and tormenting predators. For in spite of the unattractive appearance that sea urchins and sea stars have, predators such as fish will pick at their tube feet and other soft tissue. Some species have pedicellariae with teethed jaws and a venom sac to deal with such predators, and anyone who once stepped on such a sea urchin will remember the painful experience.

One species, the collector sea urchin Tripneustes gratilla, deploys these venomous pedicellariae in an unique way, as Hannah Sheppard-Brennand and colleagues show: when harassed, this sea urchin will release a cloud of them in the surrounding water. Upon release, the pincer-like heads behave semi autonomously; they are mobile, have sensory structures and will bite and deliver their venom when they touch a supposed enemy.

Fish are deterred by such a swarm, as lab experiments revealed, and they will leave before they have bitten the sea urchin. Protected by his unique defensive army, the collector sea urchin is able to forage safely on grass and eelgrass during the day, when other sea urchin species have to take shelter, as well as during the night.

Willy van Strien

Collector sea urchin Tripneustes gratilla with a cloud of released pedicellaria heads. © Hannah Sheppard Brennand

Sheppard-Brennand, H., A.G.B. Poore & S.A. Dworjanyn, 2017. A waterborne pursuit-deterrent signal deployed by a sea urchin. The American Naturalist 189, online March 27. Doi: 10.1086/691437

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Cleansing hair

Honey bee rubs her eyes after visiting a flower

honey bee quickly cleans herself after visiting a flower

A busy bee gets dirty: she gets covered with the pollen of flowers. But within minutes she has cleaned herself after visiting a flower, as Guillermo Amador and colleagues report, thanks to the hairs on her body.

A bee that has visited a flower to collect nectar or pollen may be completely covered with yellow pollen grains. When the eyes and antennae are dirty, she is not able to see or smell well. But the discomfort lasts only a few minutes, because during flight she manages to quickly remove the pollen, as Guillermo Amador and colleagues show. She puts it in the baskets on her hind legs to it take to the nest as food for the young, or she drops it.

Using high speed cameras, the researchers recorded the cleaning process in a number of honeybees that they had coated in pollen of dandelion or other plants. To keep the bees in front of the cameras, they tethered them temporarily to a thin wire. As the footage showed upon analysis, the bee hairs are essential for the rapid cleaning process.

A honeybee that is covered in pollen starts grooming her eyes. The hairs on the eyes are spaced so that the sticky pollen grains are suspended near the tips, where they can be easily wiped away by the pollen brushes on the forelegs. As the hairs of these brushes are closer spaced than those of the eyes, the pollen grains attach to the brushes.

With a fast movement, the bees swipe a foreleg across an eye, from dorsal to ventral, removing almost all the particles that are touched by the brush. As the researchers calculate, about twelve swipes are needed to clean the entire surface of an eye. In reality, the bees rub each eye ten to twenty times. After each swipe, they spend a few seconds to clean the pollen brush with the other legs or the mouth.

The hair on the eyes (and on the rest of the body) and the bristle brushes on the forelegs facilitate quick removal of sticky pollen after a flower visit, the conclusion is.

Still, some of the accumulated pollen must be left ungroomed, so that the bee can deliver it on the pistil of the next flower she visits. Otherwise, bees would not pollinate any flowers.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Honey bee collecting pollen. Jon Sullivan (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

On this video, a pollen-covered honey bee rubs her eyes

Amador, G.J., M. Matherne, D. Waller, M. Mathews, S.N. Gorb & D.L. Hu, 2017. Honey bee hairs and pollenkitt are essential for pollen capture and removal. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics 12:  026015. Doi: 10.1088/1748-3190/aa5c6e

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Defensive cocktail

Ants produce powerful antibiotic by mixing resin with acid

Formica paralugubris produces powerful antifungal agent

Workers of the wood ant Formica paralugubris are skilled poisoners. By treating tree resin with formic acid, they produce a powerful disinfectant to control a pathogenic fungus, Thimothée Brütsch and colleagues show.

Pathogenic micro-organisms, such as the common entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium brunneum, pose a continuous threat to ant nests; because the ants live close together, the risk of epidemics is high. Therefore, ants should keep their nests hygienic.

And so they do. Workers of the alpine wood ant Formica paralugubris, for instance, incorporate large amounts of solidified resin from coniferous trees, especially spruce, into their nest to fight pathogens, as Michel Chapuisat showed. The distinctive smell of tree resin comes from terpenes and other volatile substances; these are compounds that decrease bacterial and fungal load in wounded trees. And within ant nests, they do as well. In the presence of resin, bacteria and fungi are inhibited, with the result that more larvae survive when exposed to Metarhizium, and adult ants and larvae have a higher chance to survive when a detrimental bacterium invades the nest.

Now, Thimothée Brütsch and colleagues report that the ants enhance the antifungal activity of the resin considerably by applying formic acid. This acid, which the ants produce into their venom gland, has an antiseptic effect in itself, just like the volatile substances from resin. But the mixture of the resin with formic acid seems to work particularly well; it has greater antifungal activity than you would expect from the separate effects of resin and acid. This means that the acid increases the disinfectant effect of the tree resin.

So, the ants not only collect pieces of resin to disinfect their nest and protect themselves against pathogens, but they also treat it with formic acid to obtain a more powerful antimicrobial agent.

Willy van Strien

Photo: © Timothée Brütsch

Brütsch, T., G. Jaffuel, A. Vallat, T.C.J. Turlings & M. Chapuisat, 2017. Wood ants produce a potent antimicrobial agent by applying formic acid on tree-collected resin. Ecology and Evolution, 6 maart online. Doi: 10.1002/ece3.2834
Chapuisat, M., A. Oppliger, P. Magliano & P. Christe, 2007. Wood ants use resin to protect themselves against pathogens. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274: 2013-2017. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2007.0531

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Fake present

Male spider cheats female with densely wrapped rubbish

Pisaura mirabilis male cheats female with well-wrapped fake present

A male nursery web spider may offer its partner a worthless package instead of a decent nuptial gift. He wraps such a fake present in many layers of silk, Paolo Ghislandi and colleagues show, so that it takes longer before the female detects the deceit and sends him away.

When you give someone a cheap gift, you’d better wrap it well. At least, that is the rule in the nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis), a hunting spider that occurs throughout Europe, as Paolo Ghislandi and colleagues report. A male usually carries a nuptial gift when he is looking for a female to mate with. It should contain one or more prey items that he has caught to offer her and wrapped in white silk. A female, happy to get a nice meal, will allow the male to mate her, while she often rejects a male without a present, as Maria Albo had shown.

But instead of a meal, a female often finds the hard leftovers of an arthropod prey or some plant parts after removing the silk – an inedible gift that is worthless. Is a male giving such a gift in bad condition and unable to capture a prey and offer it? Or couldn’t he find anything better?

No, instead of inability it is pure deception, as Ghislandi concludes from field observations and behavioural experiments in the laboratory. Even a male that is well-fed and heavy – and therefore capable to catch and offer a prey – often cheats its partner with wrapped rubbish.

And he is successful, for as a female is unable to determine whether a white package contains something edible or not, she will accept a male with a fake present as readily as a male that carries an edible gift.

But ultimately, a cheating suitor will still be punished: the mating lasts briefly. A male can transfer its sperm while the female consumes her gift; it she is finished, he has to go. Consequently, when the gift is inedible, the mating will end soon, so a cheating male will transfer less sperm than a honest male. That is a disadvantage, because a female mates with several males and their sperm must compete for the eggs to be fertilized. The more sperm cells a male transfers, the more offspring he will sire.

Ghislandi also discovered that fake presents are wrapped in more layers of silk than real gifts, so cheating males invest a lot in wrapping. Probably, this is a trick to prolong mating, because the more silk is wrapped around the gift, the longer it takes a female to detect the deceit and stop the copulation.

Still, a really long mating will not ensue. And maybe that’s not so bad after all: a male cheating a female with a fake present may fertilize less eggs, but he saves time and energy to find other females, thereby increasing is lifetime reproductive success as well.

Willy van Strien

Photo: ©Paolo Ghislandi

Ghislandi, P.G., M. Beyer, P. Velado & C. Tuni, 2017. Silk wrapping of nuptial gifts aids cheating behaviour in male spiders. Behavioral Ecology, online February 23. Doi:10.1093/beheco/arx028
Ghislandi, P.G., Albo, M.J., Tuni, C. & T. Bilde, 2014. Evolution of deceit by worthless donations in a nuptial gift-giving spider. Current Zoology 60: 43-51. Doi: 10.1093/czoolo/60.1.43
Albo, M.J., G. Winther, C. Tuni, S. Toft & T. Bilde, 2011. Worthless donations: male deception and female counter play in a nuptial gift-giving spider. BMC Evolutionary Biology 11: 329. Doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-11-329

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