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 similar groups. How then do animals know who to choose as a mate and who is a member of their own species? Communication plays an important role. 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 darters because he was fascinated by the bright color patterns the males have on their bellies during the breeding season. Female darters get to select which males to mate with and the males fight with each other for access to the females during the mating season. Species identification is very important during this time. 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 males use the color patterns 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 be able to hybridize, or mate with members of a different species if their color patterns are very close. Thus, before collecting any data, Michael predicted that the more similar the color patterns between two males, the more likely they would be to hybridize and act aggressively towards each other. If this is the case, it would serve as evidence that color pattern may indeed serve as a signal to communicate darter species identity.

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

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

Michael collected eight 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. In some species pairs the color patterns were very similar, and in some they were very different. For each species pair, he put five males of both species and five females of both species in the same fish tank and observed their behavior for five hours. He did this eight times, once for each species pair (for a total of 1,280 fish!). During the five-hour observation period, he recorded (1) how many times females mated with males of their own species or of a different species and (2) how many times males were aggressive towards males of their own species or of a different species. He used these data to calculate an index of bias for each behavior, to show whether individuals had stronger reactions towards members of their own species.

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

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

Videos showing darter behavior:

Darter species used in the experiment:

darters

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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

To introduce students to bluefin killifish, there is a video showing the blue and red color morphs. Video can be shown on mute (background music is a little corny)!


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.

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Raising Nemo: Parental care in the clown anemonefish

Clown anemonefish caring for their eggs.

Clown anemonefish caring for their eggs.

The activities are as follows:

When animals are born, some offspring are able to survive on their own, while others rely on parental care. Parental care can take many forms. One or both parents might help raise the young, or in some species other members of the group help them out. The more time and energy the parents invest, the more likely it is that their offspring will survive. However, parental care is costly for the parents. When a parent invests time, energy, and resources in their young, they are unable to invest as much in other activities, like finding food for themselves. This results in a tradeoff, or a situation where there are costs and benefits to the decisions that must be made. Parents must balance their time between caring for their offspring and other activities.

The severity of the tradeoff between parental care and other activities may depend on environmental conditions. For example, if there is a lot of food available, parents may spend more time tending to their young because finding food for themselves takes less time and energy. Scientists wonder if parents are able to adjust their parental care strategies in response to environmental changes.

Photo of Tina (left) with other members of her lab. The glowing blue tanks around them all contain anemonefish!

Photo of Tina (left) with other members of her lab. The glowing blue tanks around them all contain anemonefish!

Tina is a scientist studying the clown anemonefish. She is interested in how parental care in this species changes in response to the environment. She chose to study anemonefish because they use an interesting system to take care of their young, and because the environment is always changing in the coral reefs where they live.

Anemonefish form monogamous pairs and live in groups of up to six individuals. The largest female is in charge of the group. Only the largest male and female get to mate and take care of the young. Both parents care for eggs by tending them, mouthing the eggs to clean the nest and remove dead eggs, and fanning eggs with their fins to oxygenate them. A single pair may breed together tens or even hundreds of times over their lifetimes. But here is the crazy part – anemonefish can change their sex! If the largest female dies, the largest male changes to female, and the next largest fish in line becomes the new breeding male. That means that a single parent may have the opportunity to be a mother and a father during its lifetime.

Parents will fan the eggs to increase oxygen by the nest, or mouth them to remove dead eggs and clean the nest.

Parents will fan the eggs to increase oxygen by the nest, or mouth them to remove dead eggs and clean the nest.

On the reef, anemonefish groups also experience shifts in how much food is available. In years with lots of food, the breeding pair has lots of young, and in years with little food they do not breed as often. Tina presumed that food availability determines how much time and energy the parents invest in parental care behaviors. She collected data from 20 breeding pairs of fish, 10 of which she gave half rations of food, and 10 of which she gave full rations. The experiment ran for six lunar months. Every time a pair laid a clutch of eggs, Tina waited 7 days and then took a 15-minute video of the parents and their nest. She watched the videos and measured three parental care behaviors: mouthing, fanning, and total time spent tending for both males and females. Some pairs laid eggs more than once, so she averaged these behaviors across the six months of the experiment. Tina predicted that parents fed a full ration would perform more parental care behaviors, and for a longer amount of time, than parents fed a half ration.

Watch videos of the experimental trials, demonstrating the mouthing and fanning behaviors:

Featured scientist: Tina Barbasch from Boston University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.4


barbasch_photoAbout Tina: I first became interested in science catching frogs and snakes in my backyard in Ithaca, NY. This inspired me to major in Biology at Cornell University, located in my hometown. As an undergraduate, I studied male competition and sperm allocation in the local spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. After graduating, I joined the Peace Corps and spent 2 years in Morocco teaching environmental education and 6 months in Liberia teaching high school chemistry. As a PhD student in the Buston Lab, I study how parents negotiate over parental care in my study system the clownfish, Amphiprion percula, otherwise known as Nemo.

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Make way for mummichogs

Collecting mummichogs and other fish out of research traps.

Collecting mummichogs and other fish out of research traps.

The activities are as follows:

Salt marshes are important habitats and contain a wide diversity of species. These ecosystems flood with salt water during the ocean’s high tide and drain as the tide goes out. Fresh water also flows into marshes from rivers and streams. Many species in the salt marsh can be affected when the movement of salt and fresh water across a tidal marsh is blocked by human activity, for example by the construction of roads. These restrictions to water movement, or tidal restrictions, can have many negative effects on salt marshes, such as changing the amount of salt in the marsh waters, or blocking fish from accessing different areas.

Local managers are working to remove tidal restrictions and bring back valuable habitat. At the same time, scientists are working to study how the remaining tidal restrictions impact fish populations. To do this, they measure the number of fish found upstream of tidal restrictions, which is the side connected to the river’s freshwater but cut off from the ocean when the restriction is in place. By taking measurements before and after the restriction is removed, scientists can study the impacts that the restriction had on fish populations

Mummichogs are a small species of fish that live in tidal marshes all along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Mummichogs are a small species of fish that live in tidal marshes all along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Mummichogs are a small species of fish that live in tidal marshes all along the Atlantic coast of the United States. They can be found in most streams and marsh areas and are therefore a valuable tool for scientists interested in comparing different marshes. The absence of mummichogs in a salt marsh is likely a sign that it is highly damaged.

In Gloucester, MA, students participating in Mass Audubon’s Salt Marsh Science Project are helping Liz and Robert use mummichogs to examine the health of a salt march. In 2002 and 2003 Liz, Robert, and the students set traps upstream of a road, which was acting as a tidal restriction. These traps collected mummichogs and other species of fish. The day after they set the traps, the students counted the number of each fish species found in the traps.

Students participating in Mass Audubon’s Salt Marsh Science Project Count fish at Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary, Gloucester, MA

Students participating in Mass Audubon’s Salt Marsh Science Project Count fish at Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary, Gloucester, MA

In December 2003, a channel was dug below the road to remove the tidal restriction and restore the marsh. From 2004 to 2007, students in the program continued to place traps in the same upstream location and collect data in the same way each year. Students then compared the number of fish from before the restoration to the numbers found after the restriction was removed. The students thought that once the tidal restriction was removed, mummichogs would return to the upstream locations in the marsh.

Featured scientists: Liz Duff and Robert Buchsbaum from Mass Audubon. Written by: Maria Maradianos, Samantha Scola, and Megan Wagner.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

trap_locations

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

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The mystery of Plum Island Marsh

Scientist, Harriet Booth, counting and collecting mudsnails from a mudflat at low tide.

Scientist, Harriet Booth, counting and collecting mudsnails from a mudflat at low tide.

The activities are as follows:

Salt marshes are among the most productive coastal ecosystems. They support a diversity of plants and animals. Algae and marsh plants use the sun’s energy to make sugars and grow. They also feed many invertebrates, such as snails and crabs, which are then eaten by fish and birds. This flow of energy through the food web is important for the functioning of the marsh. Also important for the food web is the cycle of matter and nutrients. The waste from these animals, and eventually their decaying bodies, recycle matter and nutrients, which can be used by the next generation of plants and algae. Changes in any links in the food chain can have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem.

Today, we are adding large amounts of fertilizers to our lawns and agricultural areas. When it rains, these nutrients run off into our waterways, ponds, and lakes. If the added nutrients end up in marshes, marsh plants and algae can then use these extra nutrients to grow and reproduce faster. Scientists working at Plum Island Marsh wanted to understand how these added nutrients affect the marsh food web, so they experimentally fertilized several salt marsh creeks for many years. In 2009, they noticed that fish populations were declining in the fertilized creeks.

View of a Plum Island salt marsh.

View of a Plum Island salt marsh.

Fertilizer does not have any direct effect on fish, so the scientists wondered what the fertilizer could be changing in the system that could affect the fish. That same year they also noticed that the mudflats in the fertilized creeks were covered in mudsnails, far more so than in previous years. These mudsnails eat the same algae that the fish eat, and they compete for space on the mudflats with the small invertebrates that the fish also eat. The scientists thought that the large populations of mudsnails were causing the mysterious disappearance of fish in fertilized creeks by decreasing the number of algae and invertebrates in fertilized creeks.

A few years later, Harriet began working as one of the scientists at Plum Island Marsh. She was interested in the mudsnail hypothesis, but there was yet no evidence to show the mudsnails were causing the decline in fish populations. She decided to collect some data. If mudsnails were competing with the invertebrates that fish eat, she expected to find high densities of mudsnails and low densities of invertebrates in the fertilized creeks. In the summer of 2012, Harriet counted and collected mudsnails using a quadrat (shown in the photo) and took cores down into the mud to measure the other invertebrates in the mudflats of the creeks. She randomly sampled 20 locations along a 200-meter stretch of creek at low tide. The data she collected are found below and can help determine whether mudsnails are responsible for the disappearance of fish in fertilized creeks.

Mudsnails on a mudflat, and the quadrat used to study their population size.

Mudsnails on a mudflat, and the quadrat used to study their population size.

Featured scientist: Harriet Booth from Northeastern University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.2

Click here for a great blog post by Harriet detailing her time spent in the salt marsh: Harriet Booth: Unraveling the mysteries of Plum Island’s marshes

If your students are looking for more information on trophic cascades in salt marsh ecosystems, check out the video below!

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Salmon in hot water

Chinook salmon in Alaska.

The activities are as follows:

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!

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Fish fights

A male in his territory (front) and an intruding male (back)

A male in his territory (front) and an intruding male (back)

The activities are as follows:

In many animals, males fight for territories. Getting a good territory and making sure other males don’t steal it is very important! Males use these territories to attract females for mating. The males that get the best territories are more likely to mate with females and have more babies. Only the males that have babies will pass on their genes to the next generation.

Stickleback fish use the shallow bottom areas of lakes to mate. Male stickleback fish fight each other to gain the best territories in this habitat. In their territories, males build a nest out of sand, aquatic plants, and glue they produce from their kidneys. The better the nest, the more females a male can attract. Males then use courtship dances to attract females to their nests. If a female likes a male, she will deposit her eggs in his nest. Then the male will care for those eggs and protect the offspring that hatch.

Scientist Alycia out in the field collecting male stickleback fish for her experiments

Scientist Alycia out in the field collecting male stickleback fish for her experiments

Alycia is a scientist who is interested in understanding what makes a male stickleback a good fighter and defender of his territory. Perhaps more aggressive males are better at defending their territory and nests because they are better at fighting off other males. She used sticklebacks she collected from British Columbia to test her hypothesis.

In her experiment, 24 males were kept in 6 large tanks, with 4 males in each tank. Alycia watched each of the 24 males every day for 10 days. She recorded the behaviors of each fish when they were competing for territories, defending their territory, and building their nests. She also recorded the size of the males’ territories and whether they had a nest each day.

Featured scientist: Alycia R. Lackey from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 7.7

More news on Alycia’s work on stickleback fish can be found at her BEACON blog post, “Making and Breaking a Species” and her blog post for the MSU museum

A male (right) defending his territory from another fish (left).

A male (right) defending his territory from another fish (left).

Which guy should she choose?

sticklebackmale

A male stickleback tending his nest. Notice the male’s bright red throat, blue eye, and blue-green body.

The activities are as follows:

In many animals, males use complex behaviors to attract females. They use displays to show off colorful parts of their bodies, like feathers or scales. For example, male peacocks fan out and shake their colorful tails to attract female attention. These displays take up a lot of energy, and yet some males are unable to attract any females while other males attract many females.

In stickleback fish, males are very colorful to attract females. Their throats turn bright red during the spring when they mate. Stickleback males also court females with zig-zag swimming! The males swim in a z-shaped pattern in front of the female, probably to show off their mating colors. Before male fish can get the attention of female fish, they must gain a territory and build a nest. In sticklebacks, females inspect nests that the males build and then decide if they want to deposit their eggs. Males care for the offspring before and after the eggs hatch. A female fish would benefit from identifying “high quality” males and choosing those males for mates. High quality males would have more energy to protect their offspring and would make better fathers. They could also pass on genes that make offspring more attractive to females in the next generation.

Scientist Alycia collecting fish from a freshwater lake in British Columbia, Canada.

Scientist Alycia collecting fish from a freshwater lake in British Columbia, Canada.

Alycia is a scientist who is interested in the stickleback’s mating behaviors. She wanted to figure out why there are differences between males and why certain males can attract a mate while others cannot. What is it about the way a male looks, moves, or smells that attracts females? What male traits are females looking at when deciding on a mate? Alycia thought female sticklebacks may choose males with redder throats and/or more complex behaviors because those traits show the female that those males are high quality. Previous work with these fish showed that male behavior, color, or territory size, or the presence of a nest could all be important. But it was still not clear which characteristic might be most important.

Alycia set up an experiment to figure out if male throat color or zig-zag swimming behaviors were attractive to females. She used a total of 24 male fish and six 75-gallon tanks. She divided the males up evenly between the large tanks, placing four males in each one. For 10 days she observed the male fish and recorded competition behaviors, territory defense, and nest building. On the tenth day, she introduced one female to each tank of four males. She recorded how the males behaved in courtship and which males the females chose. She also recorded the redness of each male.

Featured scientist: Alycia R. Lackey from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 7.9

More news on Alycia’s work on stickleback fish can be found at her BEACON blog post, “Making and Breaking a Species” and her blog post for the MSU museum

Dangerously bold

An aquarium filled with young bluegill sunfish. Bluegills are a common type of fish that live in freshwater lakes in the eastern United States.

An aquarium filled with young bluegill sunfish. Bluegills are a common type of fish that live in freshwater lakes in the eastern United States.

The activities are as follows:

1

Just as each person has her or his own personality, animals of the same species can behave very differently from one another! For example, pets, like dogs, have different personalities. Some have a lot of energy, some are cuddly, and some like to be alone. Boldness is a recognized behavior that describes whether or not an individual takes risks. Bold individuals take risks while shy individuals do not. The risks animals take have a big impact on their survival and the habitats they choose to search for food.

Bluegill sunfish are a type of fish that lives in freshwater lakes and ponds across the world. Open water and cover are two habitat types where young bluegill are found. The open water habitat in the center of the pond is the best place for bluegill to eat a lot of food. However, the open water is risky and has very few plants or other places to hide. Predators, like large birds, can easily find and eat bluegill in the open water. The cover habitat at the edge of the pond has many plants and places to hide from predators, but it has less food that is best for bluegill to grow fast. Both habitats have costs and benefits—called a tradeoff.

To determine their personality, Melissa observed bluegill sunfish in the aquarium lab.

To determine their personality, Melissa observed bluegill sunfish in the aquarium lab.

Melissa is a scientist who is interested in whether differences in young bluegill behavior changes the habitats in which they choose to search for food. First, she looked at whether young bluegill have different personalities by bringing them into an aquarium lab and watching their behavior. Melissa observed that, just like in humans and dogs, bluegill sunfish have different personalities. She noticed that some bluegill took more risks and were bolder than others. Melissa wanted to know if these differences in behavior could also be observed in her experimental pond. She reasoned that being in open water is risky, but results in more access to food. Therefore, bold fish should take more risks and use the open water habitat more than shy fish, giving them more food, allowing them to grow faster and larger, but exposing them to more predation. Just the opposite should be true about shy fish: more time for them in the cover habitat of the pond exposing them to less predation, but also giving them less access to food and an overall smaller body size than bold fish. A tradeoff for both types of fish based on personality.

Melissa designed a study to test the growth and survival of bold and shy fish. When she was watching the fish’s behavior in the lab, she determined if a fish was bold or shy. If a fish took the risk of leaving the safety of the vegetation in a tank so that it could eat food while there was a predator behind a mesh screen, it was called bold. If it did not eat, it was called shy. She marked each fish by clipping the right fin if it was bold or the left fin if it was shy. She placed 100 bold and 100 shy bluegill into an experimental pond with two largemouth bass (predators). The shy and bold fish started the experiment at similar lengths and weights. After two months, she drained the pond and found every bluegill that survived. She recorded whether each fish that survived was bold or shy and measured their size (length and weight).

Featured scientist: Melissa Kjelvik from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 7.3

Photo Jul 23, 5 41 38 PM

A view of the aquarium tank used to determine fish personality. A largemouth bass is placed to the left of the barrier, while 3 bluegill sunfish are placed to the right. If a sunfish swims out of the vegetation and eats a bloodworm dropped near the predator, it is considered bold.

A view of the aquarium tank used to determine fish personality. A largemouth bass is placed to the left of the barrier, while 3 bluegill sunfish are placed to the right. If a sunfish swims out of the vegetation and eats a bloodworm dropped near the predator, it is considered bold.

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