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

Finding Mr. Right

Mountain chickadee, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

Mountain chickadee, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

The activities are as follows:

Depending on where they live, animals can face a variety of challenges from the environment. For example, animal species that live in cold environments may have adaptive traits that help them survive and reproduce under those conditions, such as thick fur or antifreeze in their blood. Animals may also have adaptive behaviors that help them deal with the environment, such as storing food for periods when it is scarce, or hibernating during times of the year where conditions are most unfavorable. These adaptations are usually consistently seen in all individuals within a species. However, sometimes populations of the same species may be exposed to different conditions depending on where they live. The idea that populations of the same species have evolved as a result of certain aspects of their environment is called local adaptation.

Mountain chickadees are small birds that live in the mountains of western North America. These birds do not migrate to warmer locations like many other bird species; they remain in the same location all year long. To deal with living in a harsh environment during the winter, mountain chickadees store large amounts of food throughout the forest during the summer and fall. They eat this food in the winter when very little food is available. There are some populations of the species that live near the tops of mountains, and some that live at lower elevations. Birds at higher elevations experience harsher winter conditions (lower temperature, more snow) compared to birds living at lower elevations. This means that birds higher in the mountains depend more on their stored food to survive winter.

Carrie conducting field research in winter, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

Carrie conducting field research in winter, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

Carrie studies mountain chickadees in California. Based on previous research that was done in the lab she works in, she learned these birds have excellent spatial memory, or the ability to recall locations or navigate back to a particular place. This type of memory makes it easier for the mountain chickadees to find the food they stored. Carrie’s lab colleagues previously found that populations of birds from high elevations have much better spatial memory compared to low elevation birds. Mountain chickadees also display aggressive behaviors, and fight to defend resources including territories, food, or mates. Previous work Carrie and her lab mate conducted found that male birds from low elevations are socially dominant over male birds from high elevations, meaning they are more likely to win in a fight over resources. Taken together, these studies suggest that birds from high elevations would likely do poorly at low elevations due to their lower dominance status, but low elevation birds would likely do poorly at high elevations with harsher winter conditions due to their inferior memory for finding stored food items. These populations of birds are likely locally adapted – individuals from either population would likely be more successful in their own environments compared to the other.

In this species, females choose which males they will mate with. Carrie predicted females would prefer to mate with males that are from the same elevation. She thought this because males from the same elevation as the females may be best adapted to the location where the female lives. This means that when the female lays her eggs, her offspring will likely also inherit traits that are well suited for that environment. If she mates with males that match her environment, she is setting up her offspring to be more successful and have higher survival where they will live. This process of females choosing males that are from the same environment could contribute to the populations becoming more and more distinct. Offspring born in the high mountains will continue to inherit genes for good spatial memory, and those born at high elevations will inherit genes that allow them to be socially dominant.

Mountain chickadee, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

Mountain chickadee, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

To test whether female mountain chickadees contribute to local adaptation by choosing and mating with males from their own elevation, Carrie brought high and low elevation males and females into the lab. Carrie made sure that the conditions in the lab were similar to the light conditions in the spring when the birds mate (14 hours of light, 10 hours of dark). Once a female was ready to be tested, she was given time to spend time with both males in a cage that is called a two-choice testing chamber. On one side of the testing chamber was a male from a low elevation population, and on the other side was a male from a high elevation population. Each female could fly between the two sides of the testing chamber, allowing her to “choose” which male she preferred to spend time close to (measured in seconds [s]). There was a cardboard divider in the middle of the cage with a small hole cut into it. This allowed the female to sit on the middle of the cardboard, which was not counted as preference time for either male. Females from both high and low elevation populations were tested in the same way. The female bird’s preference was determined by comparing the amount of time the female spent on either side of the cage. More time spent on the side of the cage by one male over the other indicates a preference for that male.

Watch a video of one of the experimental trials:

Featured scientist: Carrie Branch from University of Nevada Reno

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.5

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:


carrie-branchAbout Carrie: I have been interested in animal behavior and behavioral ecology since my second year in college at the University of Tennessee. I am primarily interested in how variation in ecology and environment affect communication and signaling in birds. I have also studied various types of memory and am interested in how animals learn and use information depending on how their environment varies over space and time. I am currently working on my PhD in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology at the University of Nevada Reno and once I finish I hope to become a professor at a university so that I can continue to conduct research and teach students about animal behavior. In my spare time I love hiking with my friends and dogs, and watching comedies!

Why so blue? The determinants of color pattern in killifish, Part II

In Part 1, you examined the effects of genetics and environment on anal fin color in male bluefin killifish. The data from Becky’s experiment showed that both genetics and environment work together to determine whether male offspring had blue, yellow, or red anal fins. You will now examine how the father’s genetics, specifically their fin color pattern, affects anal fin color in their sons. When we factor in the genetics of the father, and not just the population he came from, does this influence our interpretation of the data?

The color polymorphism in bluefin killifish – males display anal fins in blue, red, or yellow.

The activities are as follows:

For her experiment, Becky collected male and female fish from both a swamp (26 Mile Bend) and a spring (Wakulla) population. Most of the males in the swamp have blue anal fins, but some have red or yellow. Most of the males from the spring have red or yellow anal fins, but some have blue. Becky decided to add data about the father’s fin color pattern into her existing analysis from Part 1 to see how it affected her interpretation of the results.

In Part 1, Becky was looking at the genetics from the population level. Looking at the data this way, we saw parents from the 26 Mile Bend swamp population were more likely to have sons with blue anal fins than parents from the Wakulla spring. Parents from the 26 Mile Bend were also much more likely to have sons with higher levels of plasticity, meaning they responded more to the environment they were raised in. This means there was a big difference between the proportion sons with blue anal fins in the clear and brown water treatments.

Bringing in the color pattern of the fathers now allows Becky to look at the genetics from both the population and the individual level. From both the swamp and spring population, Becky collected males of all colors. Becky measured the color pattern of the fathers and recorded the color of their anal fins and the rear part of their dorsal fins. She used males that were red on the rear portion of the dorsal fin with a blue anal fin (rb), males that were red on both fins (rr), males that were yellow on both fins (yy), and males that were yellow on the rear portion of the dorsal fin with blue a blue anal fin (yb).

colormorph

She randomly assigned each father’s sons into one of the water treatments, either clear or brown water. Once the sons developed their fin colors, she recorded the anal fin color. This experimental design allowed her to test whether sons responded differently to the treatment depending on the genetics of their father. She thought that the anal fin color of the sons would be inherited genetically from the father, but would also respond plastically to the environment they were raised in. She predicted fathers with blue anal fins would be more likely to have sons with blue anal fins, especially if they were raised in the brown water treatment. She also predicted that fathers with red and yellow anal fins could have sons with blue anal fins if they were raised in the brown water treatment, but not as many as the blue fathers.

Featured scientist: Becky Fuller from The University of Illinois

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9


About Becky: I consider myself to be an evolutionary biologist who studies fishes. I grew up in a small town riding horses in 4-H and working in a veterinary clinic. As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, I was interested in biology and considering either medical or veterinary school. Two things led to me research in ecology and evolution. In the summer of 1991, I was taking courses at Cedar Point Biological Field Station which was run by the University of Nebraska. I met Dr. Anthony Joern (Tony) who was studying grasshopper community ecology. Tony hired me onto his field crew that summer after the courses were finished. I went on to do an undergraduate thesis under Tony’s mentorship where I studied predation on grasshoppers. I caught the “science bug” and never looked back. Following my undergraduate work, I went to Uppsala University in Sweden on a Fulbright Scholarship. Here, I developed my love for fish and aquatics. I worked with Dr. Anders Berglund on pipefish in a fjord on the west coast of Sweden. Since then, I have had many wonderful advisers, instructors, mentors, and collaborators who have helped me develop skills along the numerous fronts required for a successful career in science. I consider myself very fortunate to have a job where I can do science and teach young, enthusiastic undergraduates.

Why so blue? The determinants of color pattern in killifish, Part I

The color polymorphism in bluefin killifish – males display anal fins in blue, red, or yellow.

The activities are as follows:

In nature, animals can be found in a dazzling display of different colors and patterns. Color patterns serve as signals to members of the animal’s own species, or to other species. They can be used to attract mates, camouflage with the environment, or warn predators to stay away. When looking at the diversity of colors found in nature, you may wonder, why do animals have the color patterns they do? One way to study this question is to look at a single species that has individuals of different colors. This variation can be used to uncover the mechanisms that determine color.

The bluefin killifish is a freshwater species that is found mostly in Florida. They are found in two main habitats, springs and swamps. An intriguing aspect of this species is that male bluefin killifish are brightly colored with many different color patterns. The brightest part of the fish is the anal fin, which is found on the bottom of the fish by the tail. Some males have red anal fins, some have yellow anal fins, and others have blue anal fins. This variation in color is called a polymorphism, meaning that in a species there are multiple forms of a single trait. In a single spring or swamp you may see all three colors!

Becky in the field, with her colleague Katy, collecting fish in 26 Mile Bend Swamp.

Becky in the field, with her colleague Katy, collecting fish in 26 Mile Bend Swamp.

Becky is a biologist studying bluefin killifish. One day, while out snorkeling for her research, she noticed an interesting pattern. She observed that there were differences in the polymorphism depending on whether she was in a spring or swamp. Springs have crystal clear water that can appear blue-tinted. Becky noticed that most of the males in springs had either red or yellow anal fins. Swamps have brown water, the color of iced tea, due to the dissolved plant materials in the water. Becky noticed that most of the males in swamps had blue anal fins. After noticing this pattern she wanted to find out why this variation in color existed. Becky came up with two possible explanations. She thought males in swamps might be more likely to be blue (1) because of the genes they inherit from their parents, or (2) because individual color is responding to environmental conditions. This second case, where the expression of a trait is directly influenced by the environment that an individual experiences, is known as phenotypic plasticity.

Becky had to design an experiment that could tease apart whether genes, plasticity, or both were responsible for male anal fin color. She did this by collecting male and female fish from the two habitat types, breeding them, and raising their offspring in clear or brown water. If a father’s genes are responsible for anal fin color in their sons, then fathers from swamps would be more likely to leave behind blue sons. If environmental conditions determine the color of sons, then sons raised in brown water will be blue, regardless of the population origin of their father.

Becky’s family helping her out in the field!

Becky’s family helping her out in the field!

Becky and her colleagues collected fish from two populations in the wild – Wakulla Spring, and 26 Mile Bend Swamp – and brought them into the lab. These two populations represent the genetic stocks for the experiment. Fish from Wakulla are more closely related to each other than they are to fish from 26 Mile Bend. In the lab, they mated female fish with male fish from the same population: females from Wakulla mated with males from Wakulla, and females from 26 MB mated with males from 26 MB. The female fish then laid eggs, and after the offspring hatched from their eggs, half were put into tanks with clear water (which mimics spring conditions) and half in tanks with brown water (which mimics swamp conditions). For the brown water treatment, Becky colored the water using ‘Instant, De-caffeinated, No-Sugar, No-Lemon’ tea. They raised the fish to adulthood (3-6 months) so they could determine their sex and the color of the son’s anal fins. Becky then counted the total number of male offspring, and the number of male offspring that had blue anal fins. She used these numbers to calculate the proportion of sons that had blue anal fins in each treatment.

Featured scientist: Becky Fuller from The University of Illinois

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.4


About Becky: I consider myself to be an evolutionary biologist who studies fishes. I grew up in a small town riding horses in 4-H and working in a veterinary clinic. As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, I was interested in biology and considering either medical or veterinary school. Two things led to me research in ecology and evolution. In the summer of 1991, I was taking courses at Cedar Point Biological Field Station which was run by the University of Nebraska. I met Dr. Anthony Joern (Tony) who was studying grasshopper community ecology. Tony hired me onto his field crew that summer after the courses were finished. I went on to do an undergraduate thesis under Tony’s mentorship where I studied predation on grasshoppers. I caught the “science bug” and never looked back. Following my undergraduate work, I went to Uppsala University in Sweden on a Fulbright Scholarship. Here, I developed my love for fish and aquatics. I worked with Dr. Anders Berglund on pipefish in a fjord on the west coast of Sweden. Since then, I have had many wonderful advisers, instructors, mentors, and collaborators who have helped me develop skills along the numerous fronts required for a successful career in science. I consider myself very fortunate to have a job where I can do science and teach young, enthusiastic undergraduates.

Winter is coming! Can you handle the freeze?

Doug, and two members of his team, setting up the reciprocal transplant experiment in Scandinavia.

Doug with the reciprocal transplant experiment in Scandinavia.

The activities are as follows:

Doug is a biologist who studies plants from around the world. He often jokes that he chose to work with plants because he likes to take it easy. While animals rarely stay in the same place and are hard to catch, plants stay put and are always growing exactly where you planted them! Using plants allows Doug to do some pretty cool and challenging experiments. Doug and his research team carry out experiments with the plant species Mouse-ear Cress, or Arabidopsis thaliana. They like this species because it is easy to grow in both the lab and field. Arabidopsis is very small and lives for just one year. It grows across most of the globe across a wide range of latitudes and climates. Arabidopsis is also able to pollinate itself and produce many seeds, making it possible for researchers to grow many individuals to use in their experiments.

Doug, and two members of his team, setting up the reciprocal transplant experiment in Scandinavia.

Doug, and two members of his team, setting up the reciprocal transplant experiment in Scandinavia.

Part I: Doug wanted to study how Arabidopsis is able to survive in such a range of climates. Depending on where they live, each population faces its own challenges. For example, there are some populations of this species growing in very cold habitats, and some populations growing in very warm habitats. He thought that each of these populations would adapt to their local environments. An Arabidopsis population growing in cold temperatures for many generations may evolve traits that increase survival and reproduction in cold temperatures. However, a population that lives in warm temperatures would not normally be exposed to cold temperatures, so the plants from that population would not be able to adapt to cold temperatures. The idea that populations of the same species have evolved as a result of certain aspects of their environment is called local adaptation.

To test whether Arabidopsis is locally adapted to its environment, Doug established a reciprocal transplant experiment. In this type of experiment, scientists collect seeds from plants in two different locations and then plant them back into the same location (home) and the other location (away). For example, seeds from population A would be planted back into location A (home), but also planted into location B (away). Seeds from population B would be planted back into location B (home), but also planted at location A (away). If populations A and B are locally adapted, this means that A will survive better than B in location A, and B will survive better than A in location B. Because each population would be adapted to the conditions from their original location, they would outperform the plants from away when they are at home (“home team advantage”).

In this experiment, Doug collected many seeds from warm Mediterranean locations at low latitudes, and cold Scandinavian locations at high latitudes. He used these seeds to grow thousands of seedlings. Once these young plants were big enough, they were planted into a reciprocal transplant experiment. Seedlings from the Mediterranean location were planted alongside Scandinavian seedlings in a field plot in Scandinavia. Similarly, seedlings from the Scandinavian locations were planted alongside Mediterranean seedlings in a field plot in the Mediterranean. By planting both Mediterranean and Scandinavian seedlings in each field plot, Doug can compare the relative survival of each population in each location. Doug made two local adaptation predictions:

  1. Scandinavian seedlings would survive better than Mediterranean seedlings at the Scandinavian field plot.
  2. Mediterranean seedlings would survive better than Scandinavian seedlings planted at the Mediterranean field plot.
Doug's team in the Mediterranean prepped and ready to set up the experiment.

Doug’s team in the Mediterranean prepped and ready to set up the experiment.

Part II: The data from Doug’s reciprocal transplant experiment show that the Arabidopsis populations are locally adapted to their home locations. Now that Doug confirmed that populations were locally adapted, he wanted to know how it happened. What is different about the two habitats? What traits of Arabidopsis are different between these two populations? Doug now wanted to figure out the mechanism causing the patterns he observed.

Doug originally chose Arabidopsis populations in Scandinavia and the Mediterranean for his research on local adaptation because those two locations have very different climates. The populations may have adapted to have the highest survival and reproduction based on the climate of their home location. To deal with sudden freezes and cold winters in Scandinavia, plants may have adaptations to help them cope. Some plants are able to protect themselves from freezing temperatures by producing chemicals that act like antifreeze. These chemicals accumulate in their tissues to keep the water from turning into ice and forming crystals. Doug thought that the Scandinavian population might have evolved traits that would allow the plants to survive the colder conditions. However, the plants from the Mediterranean aren’t normally exposed to cold temperatures, so they wouldn’t have necessarily evolved freeze tolerance traits.

To see whether freeze tolerance was driving local adaptation, he set up an experiment to identify which plants survived after freezing. Doug again collected seeds from several different populations across Scandinavia and across the Mediterranean. He chose locations that had different latitudes because latitude affects how cold an area gets over the year. High latitudes (closer to the poles) are generally colder and low latitudes (closer to the equator) are generally warmer. Doug grew more seedlings for this experiment, and then, when they were a few days old, he put them in a freezer. Doug counted how many seedlings froze to death, and how many survived, and he used these numbers to calculate the percent survival for each population. To gain confidence in his results, he did this experiment with three replicate genotypes per population.

Doug predicted that if freeze tolerance was a trait driving local adaptation, the seedlings originally from colder latitudes (Scandinavia) would have increased survival after the freeze. Seedlings originally from lower latitudes would have decreased survival after the freeze because the populations would not have evolved tolerance to such cold temperatures.

Featured scientist: Doug Schemske from Michigan State University (MSU). Written by Christopher Oakley from MSU and Purdue University, and Marty Buehler (RET) from Hastings High School.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 12.0

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

Agren, J. and D.W. Schemske (2012). Reciprocal transplants demonstrate strong adaptive differentiation of the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana in its native range. New Phytologist 194:1112–1122.

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.

Feral chickens fly the coop

Red Junglefowl are the same species as chickens (Gallus gallus). On Kauai island, they have mated with feral chickens to produce hybrids (photo by Tontantours).

Red Junglefowl are the same species as chickens (Gallus gallus). On Kauai island, they have mated with feral chickens to produce hybrids (photo by Tontantours).

The activities are as follows:

When the animals that humans keep in captivity escape into the wild, we call them feral. You may have seen feral animals, such as pigeons, cats, or dogs, right in your own backyard. But did you know that there are dozens of other feral species all over the world, including goats, parrots, donkeys, wallabies, and chameleons?

Sometimes feral species interbreed with closely related wild relatives to produce hybrid offspring. Feral dogs, for example, occasionally mate with wolves to produce hybrid pups, which resemble both their wolf and dog parents. Over many generations, a population made up of these wolf-dog hybrids can evolve to become more wolf-like or more dog-like. Which direction they take will depend on whether dog or wolf traits help the individual survive and reproduce in the wild. In other words, hybrids will evolve traits that are favored by natural selection.

Photograph of a feral hen on Kauai, with her recently hatched chicks (photo by Pamela Willis).

Photograph of a feral hen on Kauai, with her recently hatched chicks (photo by Pamela Willis).

You might be surprised to learn that like dogs, chickens also have close relatives living in the wild. These birds, called Red Junglefowl, inhabit the jungles of Asia and also many Pacific islands. Eben is a biologist who studies how the island populations of these birds are evolving over time. He has discovered that Red Junglefowl on Kauai Island, which is part of Hawaii, have recently started interbreeding with feral chickens. Now there is a hybrid population. Eben wanted to figure out if the hybrids on Kauai are evolving to be more like chickens, or more like Red Junglefowl. One of the biggest differences between chickens and Red Junglefowl is their breeding behaviors: Red Junglefowl females only lay a handful of eggs every spring, whereas chickens can lay eggs throughout the entire year… up to 300 or more eggs! What about Kauai’s feral hybrids? Do they lay eggs seasonally (like Red Junglefowl), or year-round (like many chickens)? Eben thought that Kauai’s feral hybrids would breed year round. He figured that natural selection would favor the hens that lay the most eggs (and therefore produce the most offspring). These hens’ offspring would inherit traits from their mother, and therefore breed year-round too. Thus, after multiple generations, hens that lay year-round might begin to outnumber hens that reproduce only in the spring.

To test his hypothesis, Eben’s research group collected hundreds of photographs and videos of Kauai’s hybrid chickens. Tourists delight in photographing Kauai’s wild chickens and uploading their media to the internet. Fortunately for Eben, their cameras and cell phones often record the dates that images are taken. Eben looked at media posted on websites like Flickr and YouTube to find documentation of feral chickens throughout the year. This allowed him to see whether chicks are present during each of the four seasons. He knew that any hen observed with chicks had recently mated and hatched eggs, because the chicks only stay with their mothers for a few weeks.

Featured scientist: Eben Gering from Michigan State University 

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

To learn more about feral chickens and Eben’s research, check out the popular science articles below:

Mini documentary you can watch in class. The video gives a brief history of chickens on the island of Kauai, and shows mother hens with their chicks:

Cock a Doodle Doo from John Goheen on Vimeo.

Students can watch the same videos that Eben used to collect his experimental data. They can find these videos by searching YouTube for “feral chickens Kauai” and many examples will come up, like this video:


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About Eben: One of the most exciting things I learned as a college student was that natural populations sometimes evolve very quickly. Biologists used to think evolution was too slow to be studied “in action”, so their research focused on evolutionary changes that occurred over thousands (or even millions) of years. I study feral animal populations to learn how rapid evolutionary changes help them survive and reproduce, without direct help from us.

How the cricket lost its song, Part II

In Part 1 you determined that the Kauai flatwing mutation led to a decrease in parasitism rates for male crickets. Today, most of the male crickets on Kauai have evolved flat wings and can no longer produce songs that were previously used to attract female crickets. Without their songs, how do males attract females?

Robin collecting data on satellite behavior in normal and flatwing mutation males.

Robin collecting data on satellite behavior in normal and flatwing mutation males.

The activities are as follows:

Without their song, how are flatwing crickets able to attract females? In some other animal species, males use an alternative to singing, called satellite behavior. Satellite males hang out near a singing male and attempt to mate with females who have been attracted by the song. This helps satellite males in two ways: they don’t use energy to make a song, and they avoid attracting enemies like the fly. Perhaps the satellite behavior gives flatwing males the opportunity to mate with females who were attracted to the few singing males left on Kauai.

Collecting crickets at the speaker.

Collecting crickets at the speaker.

To test this idea, Robin set up a speaker playing cricket songs in the fields where the crickets live on Kauai, Oahu, and the Island of Hawaii. The speaker tricks male and female crickets into thinking there is a male cricket in the area making songs. Before the start of the experiment, Robin removed all the males found within a 2-meter circle around the speaker. She then broadcast cricket songs from the speaker for 20 minutes. She then returned and counted the number of males in the 2-meter circle, measured the distance from male to the speaker, and whether each male was normal or flatwing. Robin expected that flatwing males would be more likely to use satellite behavior, and therefore would be closer to the speaker than would normal males.

Featured scientist: Robin Tinghitella from the University of Denver

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.0

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

  • A video introducing the study system and describing how, in fewer than 20 generations, crickets on the island of Kuai went from singing to silent!

Data Nugget Workshop at NABT 2015: A Tail of Two Scorpions

You can get the slides from our NABT talk here: A Tail of Two Scorpions

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Salmon in Hot Water

The activities are as follows:

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Pacific salmon are important members of freshwater and ocean food webs. Salmon transport nutrients from the ocean to freshwater habitats, and traces of these nutrients can be found in everything from trees to bears! Salmon also support sport and commercial fisheries, and are used for ceremonial purposes by Native Americans. Climate change poses a threat to salmon populations by warming the waters of streams and rivers where they reproduce. To maintain healthy populations, salmon rely on cold, freshwater habitats and may go extinct as temperatures rise in coming decades. Warm temperatures can cause large salmon die-offs. However, some salmon individuals have higher thermal tolerance and are better able to survive when water temperatures rise.

Eggs used in QTL experiment

Eggs used in QTL experiment

Salmon individuals and populations may be better able to survive in warmer waters because they have certain gene variants that help them survive under these conditions. Scientists want to know whether there is a genetic basis for the variation observed in salmon’s thermal tolerance. If differences in certain genes control variation in thermal tolerance, scientists can identify the location on the genome responsible for this very important adaptation. Once identified, management agencies could then screen for these genes in populations of salmon in order to identify individuals that could better survive in a future warmer environment. Hatchery programs could also breed thermally tolerant fish in an attempt to preserve this important fish species.

Scientists working in the lab

Scientists working in the lab

To identify the genes responsible for a particular trait, scientists look for Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL). A QTL is a genetic variant that influences the phenotype of a polygenic trait, such as human height or skin color, and perhaps thermal tolerance in salmon. Scientists can find QTL by conducting experimental mattings then examining the phenotypic and genetic characteristics of the offspring. In this study, parent fish from one population of salmon, some that are tolerant to warm water and some that are not, mated and produced offspring. These offspring now had a mix of genetic backgrounds from their parents, meaning that some offspring inherited genetic variants that made them more tolerant to high temperatures and some did not. Each offspring was tested for their thermal tolerances, and had their genomes sequenced. Differences in the genome between offspring that are tolerant and those that are not reveal areas of the genome that are correlated with thermal tolerance and survival in warm water. If differences in certain genes control variation in thermal tolerance, the scientists predicted they could find regions in the salmon genome that are correlated with survival in warm water.

Featured scientists: Wesley Larson, Meredith Everett, and Jim Seeb from the University of Washington

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

There are two scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. The lab webpage can be found here.

Check out these Stated Clearly videos to explore DNA and genes with students!