Are you my species?

Michael holding a male darter. The bright color patterns differ for each of the over 200 species. Photo by Tamra Mendelson.

Michael holding a male darter. The bright color patterns differ for each of the over 200 species. Photo by Tamra Mendelson.

The activities are as follows:

What is a species? The biological species concept says species are groups of organisms that can mate with each other, but do not reproduce with members of other such groups. But how do animals know who to choose as a mate and who is a member of their own species? One way is through communication. Animals collect information about each other and the rest of the world using multiple senses, including sight, sound, sonar, and smell. These signals may be used to figure out who would make a good mate and who is a member of the same species.

Michael snorkeling, looking for darters.

Michael snorkeling, looking for darters.

Michael is a scientist interested in studying how individuals communicate within and across the boundaries of species. He studies darters, a group of over 200 small fish species that live on the bottom of streams, rivers, and lakes. Michael first chose to study darter fish because the males in these species have bright color patterns during the breeding season. Female darters get to choose which males to mate with, and males fight with each other during the mating season. Females want to make sure they choose a member of their own species to mate with. Males want to make sure they only spend energy fighting off males of their own species, who are competing for the same females. What information do females and males use to guide their behavior, and how do they know which individuals are from their own species?

Across all darter species, there is a huge diversity of color patterns. Because only males are brightly colored, and there is such a diversity of colors and patterns, Michael wondered if male color patterns were used to communicate species identity during mating. Some darter species have color patterns that are very similar to those of other darter species. Perhaps, Michael thought, the boundaries of species are not as clear as described by the biological species concept. Some darter species may hybridize, or mate with members of a different species if their color patterns are very close. If color pattern serves as a signal to communicate darter species identity, then Michael predicted that species with similar male color patterns would hybridize and be more aggressive with each other than species with very different male color patterns.

Michael (right) in the field, collecting darters. Photo by Tamra Mendelson.

Michael (right) in the field, collecting darters. Photo by Tamra Mendelson.

Michael collected 8 pairs of darter species (16 species in all) from Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, and North Carolina and brought them all back to the lab. For each species pair, he put five males and five females of each species (20 fish total) in the same fish tank and observed their behavior for 5 hours. He did this 8 times, once for each species pair. During the 5 hour observation period, he recorded (1) how many times females mated with their own species or a different species, and (2) how many times males were aggressive to their own species or a different species.

Featured scientist: Michael Martin from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.5

Videos showing darter behavior:

Darter species used in the experiment:

darters

Bon Appétit! Why do male crickets feed females during courtship?

Mating pair of Hawaiian swordtail cricket with macrospermatophore on the male (left). The male and female (right) are marked with paint pens for individual identification.

Mating pair of Hawaiian swordtail cricket with macrospermatophore on the male (left). The male and female (right) are marked with paint pens for individual identification.

The activities are as follows:

In many species of insects and spiders, males provide females with gifts of food during courtship and mating. This is called nuptial feeding. These offerings are eaten by the female and can take many forms, including prey items the male captured, substances produced by the male, or parts from the male’s body. In extreme cases the female eats the male’s entire body after mating! Clearly these gifts can cost the male a lot, including time and energy, and sometimes even their lives.

So why do males give these gifts? There are two main hypotheses explaining why nuptial feeding has evolved in so many different species. First, giving a gift may attract a female and improve a male’s chance of getting to mate with her, or of fathering her young. This is known as the mating effort hypothesis. Second, giving a gift may provide the female with the energy and nutrients she needs to produce young. The gift helps the female have more, or healthier, offspring. This is known as the paternal investment hypothesis. These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive – meaning, for any given species, both mechanisms could be operating, or just one, or neither.

Biz is a scientist who studies nuptial gifts, and he chose to work with the Hawaiian swordtail cricket, Laupala cerasina. He chose this species because it uses a particularly interesting example of nuptial feeding. In most other cricket species, the male provides the female with a single package of sperm, called a spermatophore. After sperm transfer, the female removes the spermatophore from her genitalia and eats it. However, in the Hawaiian swordtail cricket, males produce not just one but a whole bunch of spermatophores over the course of a single mating. Most of these are smaller, and contain no sperm – these are called “micros”. Only the last and largest spermatophore to be transferred, called the “macro” actually contains sperm. The number of micros that a male gives changes from mating to mating.

From some of his previous research, and from reading papers written by other scientists, Biz learned that micros increase the chance that a male’s sperm will fertilize some of the female’s eggs. Also, the more micros the male gives, the more of the female’s offspring he will father. This research supports the mating effort hypothesis for the Hawaiian swordtail cricket. Knowing this, Biz wanted to test the paternal investment hypothesis as well. He wanted to know whether the “micro” nuptial gifts help females lay more eggs and/or help more of those eggs hatch into offspring.

Biz used two experiments to test the paternal investment hypothesis. In the first experiment, 20 females and 20 males were kept in a large cage outside in the Hawaiian rainforest. The crickets were allowed to mate as many times as they wanted for six weeks. In the second experiment, 4 females and 4 males were kept in cages inside in a lab. Females were allowed to mate with up to 3 different males, and were then moved to a new cage to prevent them from mating with the same male more than once. In both experiments Biz observed all matings. He recorded the number of microspermatophores transferred during each mating and the number of eggs laid. If females that received a greater number of total micros over the course of all matings produced more eggs, or if their eggs had a higher rate of hatching, then the paternal investment hypothesis would be supported.

Featured scientist: Biz Turnell from Cornell University & Dresden University of Technology

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.9

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

How do brain chemicals influence who wins a fight?

fighting-fly-360wThe activities are as follows:

In nature, animals compete for resources. These resources include space, food, and mates. Animals use aggression as a way to capture or defend these resources, which can improve their chances of survival and mating. Aggression is a forceful behavior meant to overpower opponents that are competing for the same resource. The outcome (victory or defeat) depends on several factors. In insects, the bigger individuals often win. However, if two opponents are the same size, other factors can influence outcomes. For example, an individual with more experience may defeat an individual with less experience. Also individuals that are fighting to gain something necessary for their survival have a strong drive, or motivation, to defeat other individuals.

Researchers Andrew, Ken, and John study how the brain works to regulate behavior when motivation is present. They wanted to know if specific chemicals in the brain influenced the outcome of a physically aggressive competition. Andrew, Ken, and John read a lot papers written by other scientists, and learned that there was a chemical that played an important role in regulating aggressive behavior. This chemical compound, called serotonin is found in the brains of all animals, including humans. Even a small amount of this chemical can make a big impact on aggressive behavior, and perhaps the outcome of competition.

The researchers decided to do an experiment to test what happens with increasing serotonin levels in the brain. They used stalk-eyed flies in their experiment. Stalk-eyed flies have eyes on the ends of stalks that stick out from the sides of their heads. They thought that brain serotonin levels in stalk-eyed flies would influence their aggressive behaviors in battle and therefore impact the outcome of competition. If their hypothesis is true, they predicted that increasing the brain serotonin in a stalk-eyed fly would make it more likely to use aggressive behaviors, and flies that used more aggressive behaviors would be more likely to win. Battling flies use high-intensity aggressive attacks like jumping on or striking an opponent. They also use less aggressive behaviors like flexing their front legs or rearing up on their hind legs.

Two stalk-eyed flies rearing/extending forearms in battle. Photo credit: Sam Cotton.

Two stalk-eyed flies rearing/extending forearms in battle. Photo credit: Sam Cotton.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers set up a fair test. A fair test is a way to control an experiment by only changing one piece of the experiment at a time. By changing only one variable, scientists can determine if that change caused the differences they see. Since larger flies tend to win fights, the flies were all matched up with another fly that was the same size. This acted as an experimental control for size, and made it possible to look at only the impact of serotonin levels on aggression. The scientists also controlled for the age of the flies and made sure they had a similar environment since the time they were born. The experiment had 20 trials with a different pair of flies in each. In each trial, one fly received corn mixed with a dose of serotonin, while another fly received plain corn as a control. That way, both flies received corn to eat, but only one received serotonin.

The two flies were then placed in a fighting arena and starved for 12 hours to increase their motivation to fight over food. Next, food was placed in the center of the arena, but only enough for one fly! The researchers observed the flies, recording various behaviors of each opponent. They recorded three types of behaviors. High intensity behaviors were when the fighting flies touched one another. Low-intensity behaviors were when the flies did not come in contact with each other, for example jump attacks, swipes, and lunges. The last behavior type was retreating from the fight. Flies that retreated fewer times than their opponent were declared the winners. After the battles, the researchers killed the flies and collected their brains. They then measured the concentration of serotonin in each fly’s brain.

Featured scientists: Andrew Bubak and John Swallow from the University of Colorado at Denver, and Kenneth Renner from the University of South Dakota

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.2

There is a scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF for the paper is below.

Bubak, A.N., K.J. Renner, and J.G. Swallow. 2014. Heightened serotonin influences contest outcome and enhances expression of high-intensity aggressive behaviors. Behavioral Brain Research 259: 137-142.

An article written about the research in this Data Nugget: John Swallow: Co-authors study on insect aggression and neurochemistry

Videos of a experimental trial – two stalk eyed flies battling in the fighting arena. The video was filmed during the experiment by the researchers listed in this Data Nugget!

Video showing how the long eyestalks of males form!

Beetle battles

Erin has always loved beetles! Here she is with a dung beetle in Tanzania, during a graduate school class trip.

Erin has always loved beetles! Here she is with a dung beetle in Tanzania, during a graduate school class trip.

The activities are as follows:

Male animals spend a lot of time and energy trying to attract females. In some species, males directly fight with other males to become socially dominant. They also fight to take over and control important territories. This process is known as male-male competition. The large antlers of male elk are an example of a trait that has been favored by male-male competition. In other species, males try to court females directly. This process is known as female choice. The flashy tails of male peacocks are a good example of a trait that has been favored by female choice. Lastly, in some species, both male-male competition AND female choice determine which males get to mate. In order to be successful, males have to be good at both fighting other males and making themselves attractive to females. Erin is a biologist interested in these different types of mating systems. She wondered if she could discover a single trait that was favored by both male-male competition and female choice.

Two dung beetle males fighting for ownership of the artificial tunnel. Why is the photo pink? Because beetles mate and fight in dark, underground tunnels, Erin carried out all of her experiments in a dark room under dim red-filtered light. Beetles can’t see the color red, so working under red-filtered light didn’t affect the beetles’ behavior, and allowed Erin to see what the beetles were doing.

Two dung beetle males fighting for ownership of the artificial tunnel. Why is the photo pink? Because beetles mate and fight in dark, underground tunnels, Erin carried out all of her experiments in a dark room under dim red-filtered light. Beetles can’t see the color red, so working under red-filtered light didn’t affect the beetles’ behavior, and allowed Erin to see what the beetles were doing.

In horned dung beetles, male-male competition and female choice are both important in determining which males get to mate. Females dig tunnels underneath fresh piles of dung where they mate and lay their eggs. Beetles only mate inside these underground tunnels, so males fight with other males to become the owner of a tunnel. Males that control the tunnels have a better chance to mate with the female that dug it. However, there is often more than one male inside a breeding tunnel. Small males will sneak inside a main tunnel by digging a connecting side tunnel. Additionally, the constant fights between large males means that the ownership of tunnels is constantly changing. As a result, females meet many different males inside their tunnels. It is up to them to choose the male they find the most attractive, and with whom they’ll mate. In this species of dung beetle, males try to persuade females to mate by quickly tapping on the females’ back with their forelegs and antennae. Previous research has found that females are more likely to mate with males that perform this courtship tapping at a fast rate. Because both fighting and courtship tapping take a lot of strength, Erin wondered if the trait of strength was what she was looking for. Would stronger male dung beetles be favored by both male-male competition and female choice?

To keep beetles alive in the lab, Erin set up a bucket with sand, and placed one pile of dung in the center. Female beetles dug tunnels below the dung.

To keep beetles alive in the lab, Erin set up a bucket with sand, and placed one pile of dung in the center. Female beetles dug tunnels below the dung.

To test her hypothesis, Erin conducted a series of experiments to measure the mating success, fighting success, and strength of male dung beetles. First, Erin measured the mating success of male beetles by placing one male and one female in an artificial tunnel (a piece of clear plastic tubing). She watched the pair for one hour, and measured how quickly the males courted, and whether or not the pair mated. Second, Erin measured the fighting success of males by staging fights between two males over ownership of an artificial tunnel. Beetle battles consist of a head-to-head pushing match that results in one male getting pushed out of the tunnel, and the other male remaining inside. To analyze the outcome of these fights, Erin randomly selected one male in each pair as the focal male, and scored the interaction as a “win” if the focal male remained inside the tunnel, and as a “loss” if the focal male got pushed out of the tunnel. In some cases, there was not a clear winner and loser because either both males left the tunnel, or both males remained inside. These interactions were scored as a “tie”. Finally, Erin determined each beetles’ strength. She measured strength as the amount of force it took to pull a male out of an artificial tunnel. To do this, she super-glued a piece of string to the back of the beetle, had it crawl into an artificial tunnel, attached the string to a spring scale, and then pulled on the scale until the beetle was pulled out of the tunnel.

Featured scientist: Erin McCullough from the University of Western Australia

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.8

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below:

McCullough, E.L. and L.W. Simmons (2016) Selection on male physical performance during male–male competition and female choice. Behavioral Ecology


erinAbout Erin: I am fascinated by morphological diversity, and my research aims to understand the selective pressures that drive (and constrain) the evolution of animal form. Competition for mates is a particularly strong evolutionary force, and my research focuses on how sexual selection has contributed to the elaborate and diverse morphologies found throughout the animal kingdom. Using horned beetles as a model system, I am interested in how male-male competition has driven the evolution of diverse weapon morphologies, and how sexual selection has shaped the evolution of physical performance capabilities. I am first and foremost a behavioral ecologist, but my research integrates many disciplines, including functional morphology, physiology, biomechanics, ecology, and evolution.

Won’t you be my urchin?

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The activities are as follows:

Imagine you are snorkeling on a coral reef! You see a lot of plants and animals living together. Some animals, such as sharks, are predators and eat other animals. Other animals, like anemones and the fish that live in them, are mutualists and protect each other from predators. There are also herbivores, such as urchins, on the reef that eat plants and algae. All of these species, and many more, need the coral reef to survive.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Corals are animals that build coral reefs. When you look at a coral you may see what looks like one large rock. In fact, corals are made up of thousands of tiny animals, called polyps. Coral polyps are white but look brown and green because microscopic plants, called zooxanthellae, live inside them. Corals provide the plants a safe home, and in return the plants make food for corals. Sadly, today corals around the world are dying. Scientists want to figure out ways to help corals since they are such important animals.

Corals are picky and only like to live in certain places. Corals compete with algae, like seaweed, for space to grow. Sarah is a marine biologist who is interested in corals because they are such important animals on the reef. She wanted to understand how to help corals. She thought that if there were more herbivores eating algae on the reef then corals would have less competition. Then they would have more space to grow.

Sarah set up an experiment where she put tiles in bins out on the reef. Tiles provided space for animals to grow, including corals. Sarah also put sea urchins in half of the bins. Sea urchins are important herbivores and one of the species that like to eat algae. The other half of the bins had no urchins so the algae would be free to grow there. She had 4 bins with urchins and 4 bins with no urchins. After a few months, Sarah counted how many corals were growing on tiles. She counted corals found in the bins with and without sea urchins. Because sea urchins eat algae, they should free up space for coral to grow. Sarah expected that more corals would grow on the tiles in sea urchin bins compared to the bins with no sea urchins.

B. Photograph of Agaricia juvenile on experimental substratum. C. Photograph of Porites juvenile on experimental substratum

B. Photograph of coral species Agaricia juvenile on experimental tile. C. Photograph of coral species Porites juvenile on experimental tile.

Featured scientist: Sarah W. Davies from University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 6.1

The lab webpage can be found here. There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below.

Davies SW, MV Matz, PD Vize (2013) Ecological Complexity of Coral Recruitment Processes: Effects of Invertebrate Herbivores on Coral Recruitment and Growth Depends Upon Substratum Properties and Coral Species. PLOS ONE 8(9):e72830

After students have completed the Data Nugget, you can have them discuss the management implications of this research. Watch the news story below and have students consider how urchins can be used as a management tool to help restore coral reefs!