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

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

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

The activities are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.9

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

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.

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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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 domesticated 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 should 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. This interbreeding has produced a hybrid population of birds that are somewhere in between red junglefowl and domestic chickens.

One of the biggest differences between chickens and Red Junglefowl is their breeding behaviors. Red Junglefowl females lay only a handful of eggs each year and only in the spring. Domestic chickens can lay eggs during any season and sometimes up to 300 or more eggs in one year! Eben wanted to know more about the breeding behaviors of Kauai’s feral populations. In many cases, natural selection favors individuals who produce more offspring during their lifetimes. Because domesticated chickens can lay eggs year-round, Eben thought that the feral population would be evolving to be more like domesticated chickens. He predicted that feral hens would breed in all seasons.

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 only a few weeks.

Featured scientist: Eben Gering from Michigan State University 

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.6

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:


2013-02-25 18.11.57

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.

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How the cricket lost its song, Part II

In Part I 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, like birds, 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 returned and counted the number of males in the 2-meter circle, measured the distance from male to the speaker, and noted whether each male was normal or flatwing. Robin expected that flatwing males would be more likely to use satellite behavior and, therefore, would be on average closer to the speaker than 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!

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The Flight of the Stalk-Eyed Fly

Variation between stalk-eyed fly species in eyestalk length.

Variation between stalk-eyed fly species in eyestalk length.

The activities are as follows:

Stalk-eyed flies are insects with eyes located on the ends of long projections on the sides of their head, called eyestalks. Male stalk-eyed flies have longer eyestalks than females, and this plays an important role in the flies’ mating patterns. Female stalk-eyed flies prefer to mate with males with longer eyestalks. In this way, the eyestalks are much like the bright and colorful peacock’s tail. This kind of sexual selection can lead to the evolution of longer and longer eyestalks over generations. But do these long eyestalks come at a cost? For example, longer eyestalks could make it more difficult to turn quickly when flying. As with all flies, stalk-eyed flies do not fly in a straight line all the time, and often zigzag in air. If long eyestalks make quick turns more difficult, we might expect there to be a trade-off between attracting mates and flight.

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.45.44 PMMoment of inertia (I) is defined as an object’s tendency to resist rotation – in other words how difficult it is to make something turn. An object is more difficult to turn (has a higher moment of inertia) when it is more massive, and when it is further from its axis of rotation. Imagine trying to swing around quickly holding a gallon of water – this is difficult because the water has a lot of mass. Now imagine trying to swing around holding a baseball bat with a jug of water attached to the end. This will be even more difficult, because the mass is further away from the axis of rotation (your body). Now lets bring that back to the stalk-eyed fly. The baseball bat now represents the eyestalk of the fly, while the gallon of water represents the eye at the end of the stalk. We can express the relationship between the mass of the object (m = mass of the eye), its distance from the axis of rotation (R = length of eyestalk), and the moment of inertia (I) using the following equation: I = mR2.

Because moment of inertia goes up with the square of the distance from the axis, we might expect that as the length of the flies’ eyestalks goes up, the harder and harder it will be for the fly to maneuver during flight. If this is the case, we would predict that male stalk-eyed flies would make slower turns compared to similar sized female flies with shorter eyestalks.

Differences in male and female eyestalk length.

Differences in male and female eyestalk length.

To address this idea, scientists measured the effect of eyestalk length on the moment of inertia of the body needs. In addition, they measured differences in turning performance during flight. Scientists Gal and John tracked free flight trajectories of female and male stalk-eyed flies in a large flight chamber. Because female and male stalk-eyed flies have large differences in eyestalk length, their flight performance can be compared to determine the effects of eyestalk length on flight. However, other traits may differ between males and females, so body size and wing length measurements were also taken. If increased moment of inertia does limit turning performance as expected, the male flies that have significantly longer eyestalks should demonstrate slower and less tight turns, indicating a decrease in free flight performance. If there is no difference in turning performance between males and females with significantly different eyestalk lengths, then males must have a way to compensate for the higher moment of inertia.

Featured scientists: Gal Ribak from Tel-Aviv University, Israel and John Swallow from University of Colorado, Denver. Written by: Brooke Ravanelli from Denver Public School, Zoё Buck Bracey from BSCS, and John Swallow.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.0

Once your students have completed this Data Nugget, there is an extension lab activity where students can conduct their own experiment testing moment of inertia. Students simulate the flying experience of stalk-eyed flies and go through an obstacle course carrying their eyestalks with them as they maneuver through the cones to the finish line. To access this lab, click here!

Video showing how the long eyestalks of males form!

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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How to Escape a Predator

A stalk-eyed fly and spider interacting in the arena.

A stalk-eyed fly and spider interacting in the arena.

The activities are as follows:

Stalk-eyed flies are insects that have their eyes on the ends of eyestalks, or long projections from the sides of their head. Eyestalks are a sexual signal that males use to attract females. The longer the eyestalks, the more attractive a male is to females and the more mates he gets. For these flies, sexual selection leads to an elaborate trait, just like a peacock’s tail. Males with longer eyestalks have more babies and pass their traits on. Over generations, sexual selection leads to longer and longer eyestalks in males.

However, these eyestalks may come with a cost. Males with longer eyestalks may not be able to move easily and quickly. If they can’t move as fast, males with long eyestalks are potentially worse at escaping predators. Natural selection may select against long eyestalks if males with more elaborate traits are killed and eaten more often by predators. If predators eat males with longer eyestalks before the flies reproduce, they will not get to pass on their traits, regardless of how attractive they are to females.

Variation between stalk-eyed fly species in eyestalk length.

Variation between stalk-eyed fly species in eyestalk length.

In addition to eyestalk length, other traits could affect survival in male stalk-eyed flies. Perhaps the fly’s behavior is more important than its eyestalk length when faced with a predator. When biologists Amy and John first started researching how eyestalk length affected survival, they noticed something intriguing! The flies showed many different behaviors when face to face with a spider predator. Some examples of behaviors included grooming, walking or flying towards the predator, quickly walking or flying away from the predator, displaying forelegs, and bobbing their abdomens. When prey use these antipredator behaviors, predators must put in more work to catch prey, and they will sometimes give up. Therefore, antipredator behaviors may influence the predator’s choice of prey, and certain behaviors that make prey harder to catch could lead to increased survival.

To test whether differences in eye stalk length and/or antipredator behavior were important for survival, male stalk-eyed flies were put in cages with predators. Amy and John filmed the fly behaviors and analyzed the footage. They calculated the frequency and proportion of time that flies were displaying antipredator behaviors. If males with longer eyestalks have lower survival than males with shorter eyestalks, it suggests that longer eyestalks make it harder to avoid predators. However, if eyestalk length has no effect on survival, it suggests that male flies with long eyestalks are able to compensate for their lack of speed through behavior.

Featured scientists: Amy Worthington and John Swallow from Washington State University and University of Colorado, Denver. Written by: Brooke Ravanelli from Denver Public Schools and John Swallow.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.7

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

Video showing how the long eyestalks of males form!

Videos of a stalk eyed fly and spider predator together in cages. First video shows male fly displaying, grooming, and approaching spider.