Is it dangerous to be a showoff?

A male anole lizard showing his bright dewlap.

The activities are as follows:

Natural selection happens when differences in traits within a population give some individuals a better chance of surviving and reproducing than others. Traits that are beneficial are more likely to be passed on to future generations. However, sometimes a trait may be helpful in one context and harmful in another. For example, some animals communicate with other members of their species through visual displays. These signals can be used to defend territories and attract mates, which helps the animal reproduce. However, these same bright and colorful signals can draw the unwanted attention of predators.

Brown anoles are small lizards that are abundant in Florida and the Caribbean. They have an extendable red and yellow flap of skin on their throat, called a dewlap. To communicate with other brown anoles, they extend their dewlap and move their head and body. Males have particularly large dewlaps, which they often display in territorial defense against other males and during courtship with females. Females have much smaller dewlaps and use them less often.

Aaron with a baby anole lizard.

Aaron is a scientist interested in how natural selection might affect dewlap size in male and female brown anoles. He chose to work with anoles because they are ideal organisms for studies of natural selection; they are abundant, easy to catch, and have short life spans. Aaron wanted to know whether natural selection was acting in different ways for males and females to cause the differences in dewlap size. He thought that a male with a larger dewlap may be more effective at attracting females and passing on his genes to the next generation. However, males with larger, showy dewlaps may catch the eye of more predators and have higher chances of being eaten. Aaron was curious about this tradeoff and how it affected natural selection on dewlap size. For female brown anoles, Aaron thought that this tradeoff would be less important for survival because females have smaller dewlaps and use them less frequently as a signal. In other words, there may not be selection on dewlap size in females.

Using a population of brown anoles on a small island in Florida, Aaron set up a study to determine how dewlap size is related to survival and whether there is a difference between the sexes. He worked with his advisor, Robert, and other members of the lab. They designed a study to track every brown anole on the island and see who survived. In May 2015, they caught the adult lizards on the island and recorded their sex, body length, and dewlap size before releasing them with a unique identification number. Then, the lab returned to the island in October and collected all the adults once again to determine who survived and who didn’t. Aaron predicted that male anoles with larger than average dewlap size would be less likely to survive due to an increased risk of predation. He also predicted that dewlap size would not influence female survival.

Featured scientists: Aaron Reedy and Robert Cox from the University of Virginia. Co-written by undergraduate researcher Cara Giordano.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.3

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

  • For additional images of Robert and Aaron’s research with anoles in Florida, we have created PowerPoint slides that can be shown in class.
  • Aaron conducted this research as a graduate student in Robert Cox’s lab. To learn more about anole research, visit the lab’s website. To learn more about Aaron, visit his website.
  • To engage students before the Data Nugget and introduce them to brown anoles, check out this video that shows how brown anoles use dewlap signaling to attract mates and send rival males signals during confrontations:

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To bee or not to bee aggressive

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) collecting nectar to bring back to the hive. Photo by Andreas Trepte www.photo-natur.net

The activities are as follows:

Honey bees are highly social creatures that live in large colonies of about 40,000 individuals and one queen. Every member of the hive works together to benefit the colony. Some of the tasks adult bees perform include making honey, nursing young, foraging for food, building honey comb structures, and defending the colony.

From spring through fall, the main task is turning nectar from plants to honey. The honey is stored and eaten over the winter, so it is vital for the colony’s survival. Because honey is an energy-rich food source, hives are targets for break-ins from animals, like bears, skunks, and humans that want to steal the honey. Bees even have to fight off bees from other colonies that try to steal honey. Research shows that colonies adjust their defenses to match threats found in their environment. Hives in high risk areas respond by becoming more aggressive, and hives that do not face a lot of threats are able to lower their aggression. This flexibility makes sure they do not waste energy on unnecessary behaviors.

Clare is a scientist studying the behavior of social animals. There is an interesting pattern seen in other social animals, including humans, that Clare wanted to test in honey bees. In these species, the social environment experienced when an individual is young can have lasting effects on their behavior later in life. This may be because this is the time that the brain is developing. She thought this would likely be the case with honey bees for two reasons. First, bees can use social information to help coordinate group defense. Second, young bees rely completely on adult bees to bring them food and incubate them, so there are a lot of social interactions when they are young. After reading the literature and speaking with other honey bee experts, Clare found out that no one had ever tested this before!

Honey bee larva (top) and an emerging adult (bottom).

Clare chose to look at aggression level as a behavioral trait of individual bees within a colony. She predicted that young honey bees raised in an aggressive colony would be more aggressive as adults, compared to honey bees raised in a less aggressive colony. To test her predictions, Clare used 500 honey bee eggs from 18 different queens. To get these 500 eggs she collected three times in the summer, for two years. Each time she collected, she went to two different locations. Collecting from so many different queens helped Clare make sure her study included eggs with a large genetic diversity.

To test her questions, she used these eggs to set up an experiment. Eggs from each of the 18 queens were split into two groups. Each group was put into one of two types of foster colonies – high aggression and low aggression. Clare determined whether each foster colony was considered high or low aggression using a test. Because half of each queen’s eggs went into a low aggression foster colony, and the other half in a high aggression foster colony, this represents the experimental treatment.

Clare left the foster colonies alone and waited for the bees to develop in the hives. Eggs hatch and turn into larvae. These larvae mature into pupae and then into adults. Just before the young bees emerged from their pupal stage to adulthood, Clare removed them from the foster colonies and brought them into the lab. This way the bees would spend their whole adult life in the lab together, sharing a common environment.

After a week in the lab, Clare tested the aggressiveness of each individual bee. Her test measured aggressive behaviors used by a bee to defend against a rival bee from another colony. Clare observed and counted a range of behaviors including attempts to sting the rival and bites to the rival’s wings and legs. She used these values to calculate an offspring aggression score for each bee.

To select high and low aggression foster colonies to be used in her experiment, Clare first had to identify which colonies were aggressive and which were not. To do this, she put a small amount of a chemical that makes bees aggressive on a piece of paper at the front of the colony entrance. The top two photos show two colony entrances before the chemical. The bottom two photos show the same two colonies 60 seconds after the chemical. The more bees that come out, the more aggressive the colony. You can see from these images that the colony on the right is much more aggressive than the colony on the left. Clare counted the number of bees and used this value to calculate the colony’s aggression score.

Featured scientist: Clare C. Rittschof from the University of Kentucky

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.2

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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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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 growth (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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