Highlights from the 2016 Mammal Meeting

The American Society of Mammalogists’ annual meeting just wrapped up in beautiful Minneapolis, Minnesota. There were so many great talks and poster presentations that unfortunately I’m not able to highlight them all, but here are a few of my favorites!

Empirical mammal studies:

Ugly bat.

Having lost the ability to detect pheromones, the bat must rely on his good looks to attract a mate.

Laurel R. Yohe and Liliana M. Dávalos (Stony Brook): “Is vomeronasal system evolution in bats a one-way street?”
Laurel was the winner of the Anna M. Jackson award, and gave one of the first talks during the Day 1 plenary session. Her work on pheromone detection in bats combined phylogenetics, gene function analyses, and CT scanning, and revealed that bats have experienced multiple independent losses of the Vomeronasal organ.
Jeremy C. Crawford (UC Berkeley): “Elucidating the evolutionary consequences of mammalian sociality”
Jeremy also presented during the Day 1 plenary session as winner of the Elmer C. Birney Award. His comparative work looked at three systems with social and solitary sister species, and found that social species have increased rates of evolution for several immune system genes. Pathogen exposure and disease susceptibility appear to be a cost of being social.
Donovan J. Jackson and Joseph A. Cook (University of New Mexico): “Phylogeographic analyses of the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), a widespread North American mammal”
Donovan showed how glaciation during the late Pleistocene influenced the population structure of the meadow vole, which compelling evidence for three different refugia (Southeast Alaska, central U.S., and Northeast Canada). He also described a unique relict population in Florida, and showed that the currently recognized species M. breweri is indistinct from the eastern clade of M. pennsylvanicus.

Top picks for the non-mammal audience:

laptop on fire

Laptop explosion is one of the many ways data can be lost.

Kimberly J. Gilbert (University of British Columbia) and a bunch of other authors: “Scientific reproducibility and the role of data archiving”
This eye-opening talk described the importance of making our data available, and revealed how often (or not) this actually happens. Kim revealed that more than 30% of studies are not repeatable, and that when data are not properly archived at the time of publication, the probability of losing that data forever increases by 17% every year. Fortunately, newer journal policies that require data archiving are proven to improve data accessibility and reproducibility.
Robert P. Guralnick (U. Florida Museum of Natural History), Paula Zermoglio, John Wieczorek and Raphael LaFrance: “VertNet traits: biocollections as a critical source for mammal trait data”
The folks at VertNet unveiled an awesome new addition to their database: the ability to recover sex, age, body mass, and body length data from standard VertNet searches. This information has always been collected from museum specimens, but has been difficult to batch retrieve electronically. This addition to VertNet will make it easier to test large-scale multi-species patterns, or understand intraspecific variation. It is expected to go functional later this summer.
Ryan W. Norris (The Ohio State University) and Nate Upham: “Choosing the shape of the Bayesian priors when calibrating a molecular clock, an example in caviomorphs”
Most time-calibrated phylogenies are estimated using log-normal distributions on specific nodes, where a fossil provides a hard minimum and a soft maximum age. But how should we set the median and standard deviation of the lognormal prior? Hint: BEAST default values might not be appropriate. Ryan proposes two methods (he calls them the “penultimate gap” and “ghost lineage length” methods) which use information from other fossils in the clade to set the median.
Finally, I’ll mention a talk that may be of interest to the whole biology community: Robert K. Rose (Old Dominion University) presented “A status report of the Tasmanian Devil.” Tasmanian Devils have experienced massive population decline in the last few decades due to Devil Facial Tumor Disease, a lethal transmissible cancer. Robert K. Rose reported that devils are now reproducing earlier and producing litters with 2:1 female to male ratios. But good news: a promising vaccine has been developed and is now being tested in wild populations.
Looking forward to the ASM meeting in Moscow, Idaho next summer!

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