Ant wars!

Three pavement ants touch antennae to determine if they are nestmates. Photo courtesy Michael Greene.

The activities are as follows:

The ants crawling into and out of cracks along sidewalks are called pavement ants. They live in groups called colonies, which are made up of a few queens and many worker ants. A colony lives together inside a nest, a physical structure. Worker ants use their antennae to touch the bodies of other ants. Certain chemicals tell them if the ant is from their colony or a different colony. Nestmates are ants from the same colony, and non-nestmates are ants from other colonies. 

Neighboring colonies often compete for food, leading to tension. If an ant finds a non-nestmate, it organizes a large war against the nearby colony. This results in huge sidewalk battles that can include thousands of ants fighting for up to 12 hours! These ant wars often involve worker ants grabbing body parts of non-nestmate ants. 

Andrew, Jazmine, John, Mike, and Ken all work together to study the social and chemical cues that drive behaviors in animals. They were curious to learn more about the triggers that lead to colony wars. Worker ants don’t have a leader, so the scientists wanted to know how large wars are organized. The team started by reading lots of research articles and learned that there are several factors that may affect an ant’s decision to fight. These include the odor of other ants they meet, the size of the ant’s colony, and the season. The team also knew from their own experiments that if an ant meets a fellow nestmate before meeting a non-nestmate, it was more likely to fight.

A colony war involving thousands of pavement ants. Photo courtesy Michael Greene.

All of this information helped the team realize that interactions with nestmates were an important part of the decisions that start ant wars with non-nestmakes. To build on this, they wanted to know whether the decision to fight was affected by ant density, which is the number of ants within an area. They thought that at higher densities the ants would be more likely to interact, leading to more fights with non-nestmates. If more wars are observed at higher ant densities, increased interactions with nestmates might be part of the story.

To answer their question, the team collected ants from different colonies in Denver, Colorado for two separate experiments. They brought them back to the lab to set up trials in a plastic tank arena.

Experiment 1: For the first set of behavioral trials, the researchers varied the number of ants in the tank, ranging from 2 to 20 ants. The size of the tank remained constant, and there were always equal numbers of nestmates and non-nestmates. This means the ratio of nestmates to non-nestmates was always 1:1, but the density varied by how many ants were included in the experiment. They performed 18 trials for each density treatment in their experiment.

At the start of every trial, ants from each colony were in separate areas so that they could interact with nestmates first. Earlier work had shown that when ants in each area interact, they touch antennae to another ant’s body. These interactions create a brain state that makes an ant more likely to fight an ant from another colony. Then the scientists removed a barrier revealing the ants from the other colony. They watched the ants for 3 minutes. During that time they recorded the number of ants that were fighting. This way they could compare how likely the ants were to fight at different densities. They predicted there would would be more fighting at higher ant densities.

Experiment 2: The scientists also wanted to measure the effect of density on the interaction rates between just nestmates. This experiment allowed the scientists to understand how the rate of interactions affected levels of neurochemicals in brains, creating the brain state that increased the likelihood that an ant would be aggressive. For these trials, they placed different densities of nestmate ants in a tank. They randomly picked an ant during each trial and counted the number of times it contacted a nestmate ant. Different groups of ants were used in each trial and each experiment. They observed the number of interactions at different densities and expected nestmate ants to have more interactions at higher densities.

Featured scientists: Andrew Bubak, Jazmine Yaeger, John Swallow, and Michael J. Greene from the University of Colorado-Denver; Kenneth Renner from the University of South Dakota. Written by: Gabrielle Welsh

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.0

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

A news article about the research:

David vs. Goliath

Stalk-eyed flies have their eyes at the end of long stalks on the sides of their head. These stalks are used by males when fighting for resources.

The activities are as follows:

Animals in nature often compete for limited resources, like food, territory, and mates. To compete for these resources, they use aggressive behaviors to battle with others of the same species. Aggressive behaviorsare meant to overpower and defeat an opponent. The outcome of a battle depends on many different factors. In insects, one important factor is body size. Larger individuals are usually more aggressive and often win more battles. Chemicals in the brain can also influence who wins a fight. One chemical, called serotonin, can cause insects to have more aggressive behaviors. It is found in the brains of all animals, including humans.

Andrew had always been curious about what makes an animal decide to use aggressive behaviors in battle, or when to end one. He worked with researchers Nathan, Michael, Ken, and John to study the role that chemicals in the brain have on behaviors. The team was interested in how brain chemicals, like serotonin, affect aggression. They have been studying an insect species called stalk-eyed flies. These flies have eyes on the ends of long eyestalks that protrude from their heads. Male stalk-eyed flies use these eyestalks when battling each other. In a previous experiment, they found that serotonin can cause these flies to have more aggressive behaviors. They also knew that flies with shorter eyestalks usually lose fights to larger flies. 

This made them curious about whether extra serotonin could make flies with shorter eyestalks act more aggressive and help them win fights against flies with longer eyestalks. The team of researchers discussed what they knew from past research and predicted that if they gave serotonin to short eyestalk flies, it might help them win fights against long eyestalk flies. They thought this made sense because they already knew that serotonin make flies more aggressive, and more aggressive behaviors could help the shorter flies win more fights. 

The fighting arena where stalk-eyed flies battle. The camera is set up to help the scientists observe both the high intensity behaviors and retreats.

The team designed a lab study to look into this question about the importance of eyestalk length and serotonin for battles in stalk-eyed flies. First, the researchers raised male stalk-eyed flies in the lab. They made sure the flies were around the same age and were raised in a similar lab environment from the time they were born. Then, they measured the eyestalk length for each fly and divided them into two groups. One group had flies with longer eyestalks (Goliaths) and one group had flies with shorter eyestalks (Davids). They took the group of Davids with shorter eyestalks and fed half of them food with a dose of serotonin. This became the treatment group. They fed the other half of the Davids group food, but without serotonin. This was the control group. The treatment group and control group each had 20 flies.

To prepare the flies for battle, all flies were all starved for 12 hours before the competition to increase their motivation to fight over food. The researchers paired each David with a Goliath in a fighting arena. They observed the flies and recorded aggressive behaviors shown by each opponent. The researchers labeled any behavior where the fighting flies touch each other as a “high intensity behavior”. They labeled any behavior where the flies backed away as a “retreat”. Flies that retreated less than their opponent were declared the winners.

Featured scientists: Andrew Bubak, Nathan Rieger, and John Swallow from the University of Colorado, Denver; Michael Watt and Kenneth Renner from the University of South Dakota. Written by: Gabrielle Welsh.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.3

Mowing for monarchs

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.
A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.

With their orange wings outlined with black lines and white dots, monarch butterflies are one of the most recognizable insects in North America. They are known for their seasonal migration when millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada south to Mexico in the fall. Then, in the spring the monarch butterflies migrate back north. Monarch butterflies are pollinators, which means they get their food from the pollen and nectar of flowering plants that they visit. The milkweed plant is one of the most important flowering plants that monarch butterflies depend on.

During the spring and summer months female butterflies will lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Milkweed plays an important role in the monarch butterfly’s life cycle. It is the only plant that monarchs will lay their eggs on. Caterpillars hatch from the butterfly eggs and eat the leaves of the milkweed plant. The milkweed is the only food that monarch caterpillars will eat until they become butterflies.

A problem facing many pollinators, including monarch butterflies, is that their numbers have been going down for several years. Scientists are concerned that we will lose pollinators to extinction if we don’t find solutions to this problem. Doug and Nate are scientists at Michigan State University trying to figure out ways to increase the number of monarch butterflies. They think that they found something that might work. Doug and Nate have learned that if you cut old milkweed plants at certain times of the year, then younger milkweed plants will quickly grow in their place. These new milkweed plants are softer and more tender than the old plants. It appears that monarch butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on the younger plants. It also seems that the monarch caterpillars prefer to eat the younger plants.

Britney and Gabe are two elementary teachers interested in monarch butterfly conservation. They learned about Doug and Nate’s research and wanted to participate in their experiment. The team of four met and designed an experiment that Britney and Gabe could do in open meadows throughout their community.

Britney and Gabe chose ten locations for their experiment. In each location they set aside a milkweed patch that was left alone, which they called the control.  At the same location they set aside another milkweed patch where they mowed the milkweed plants down. After a while, milkweed plants would grow back in the mowed patches. This means they had control patches with old milkweed plants, and treatment patches with young milkweed plants. Gabe and Britney made weekly observations of all the milkweed patches at each location. They recorded the number of monarch eggs in each of the patches. By the end of the summer, they had made 1,693 observations!

Featured scientists: Doug Landis and Nate Haan from Michigan State University and Britney Christensen and Gabe Knowles from Kellogg Biological Station LTER.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.2

Additional resources related to this Data Nugget:

Clique wars: social conflict in daffodil cichlids

A male and female daffodil cichlid

The activities are as follows:

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to live completely alone, without contact with other people? Nowadays, humans are constantly connected by phones, texting, and social media. Our social interactions affect us in many unexpected ways. Strong social relationships can increase human lifespan, and lower the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and depression. Social relationships are so important that they are actually a stronger predictor of premature death than smoking, obesity, or physical inactivity! Like humans, social interactions are important for other animals as well.

Jennifer is a behavioral ecologist who is interested in daffodil cichlids, a social species of fish from Lake Tanganyika, a Great Lake in Africa. Daffodil cichlids live in social groups of several small fish and one breeding pair. Each group defends its own rock cluster in the lake. The breeding male and female are the largest fist in the group, and the smaller fish help defend territory against predators and help care for newly hatched baby fish. About 200 social groups together make up a colony.

Social groups of daffodil cichlids in Lake Tanganyika

Behavior within a social group may be influenced by the presence of other groups in the colony. For example, neighboring groups can be a threat because they may try to take away territory or resources. After reading about previous research on social interactions in species that live in groups, Jennifer noticed there were very few studies that looked at how neighboring groups affected behavior within the group. Jennifer thought that the presence of neighboring groups may force the breeding pair to be less aggressive towards each other and work together to protect their group’s resources against the outside threat.

To test her idea, Jennifer formed breeding pairs of daffodil cichlids in an aquarium laboratory. She first observed the breeding pairs for any aggressive behaviors when they were isolated and could not see other groups. She observed each group for 30 minutes a day for 10 days. Next, Jennifer set up a clear barrier between the breeding pair and a neighboring group. The fish could see each other but not physically interact. Jennifer again watched the breeding pair and documented any aggressive behaviors to see how the presence of a neighboring group affected conflict within the pair. She again observed each group with neighbors for 30 minutes a day for 10 days.

During these behavioral tests, Jennifer counted the total number of behaviors done by the breeding pair. She measured several behaviors. Physical attacks were counted every time contact between the fish was made (biting or ramming each other). Aggressive displays were counted when fish give signals of aggression without making physical contact (raising their fins or swimming rapidly at another fish). Submissive behaviors, or actions used to prevent aggression between the breeding pair, were also counted. Finally, behaviors used to encourage social bonding were counted and are called affiliative behaviors. Jennifer predicted that the breeding pair would perform fewer physical attacks and aggressive displays when a neighboring group was present compared to when the breeding pair was alone. She also thought the breeding pair would perform more submissive and affiliative behaviors when the neighboring group was present. In this way, the presence of an outside group would impact the behaviors within a group.

Featured scientist: Jennifer Hellmann from The Ohio State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.3

Which would a woodlouse prefer?

Woodlice are small crustaceans that live on land. They look like bugs, but are actually more closely related to crabs and lobsters! Photo credit Liz Henwood.

The activities are as follows:

Woodlice are small crustaceans that live on land. They look like bugs, but are actually more closely related to crabs and lobsters. To escape predators they hide in dark places. They spend most of their time underground and have very poor eyesight.

One day, when digging around in the dark dirt of her compost pile, Nora noticed that there were many, many woodlice hiding together. This made her wonder how woodlice decide where to live. Because woodlice have very simple eyesight, Nora thought that maybe they use dark and light colors to decide where to go. They might choose to move towards darker colors and away from lighter colors to prevent ending up above ground where predators can easily find them.

Nora collecting woodlice from the compost pile.

Nora, along with classmates in her ecology class at Michigan State University, decided to run an experiment to study woodlice behavior. She collected 10 woodlice from her compost pile and placed them in a jar. She brought the jar into the lab. Then she chose a set of trays to work with from what she had in the lab – white, with tall sides. The sides of the tray were tall and smooth so the woodlice were not able to climb out. On one end of the tray Nora put some dark soil, and on the other side she put lighter leaves. If her hypothesis was correct, Nora predicted that woodlice would more often choose to move towards the dark soil habitat, compared to the lighter leaves habitat.

For each trial, Nora gently picked up a single woodlouse with forceps. She then placed it in the center of the tray. All the woodlice were positioned so they started facing the top of the tray, not at either habitat type. The woodlice then chose to move towards one end of the tray or the other. When they reached one of the piles the students recorded which habitat they chose. It was then picked up with forceps. Nora and her classmates recorded its length and placed it in a new jar so it could be released back into the compost pile once the experiment was done.

The tray where the preference trials were conducted. To the right of the tray is the soil pile, and to the left is the leaf pile. The center was purposefully left empty and wiped down before each run.

After running this experiment and looking at the data, Nora realized it did not work. The small sample size of only 10 individuals was not enough to see a pattern. Also, she realized that after one woodlouse went a certain way, all the others would follow it, maybe because they were following a scent trail. She decided she had to do the experiment again, this time with more woodlice and in a way that would prevent them following each other’s scent trails.

For her second try, Nora collected 51 woodlice from a different compost pile. Just like the first experiment, Nora placed lighter leaves on one end of a white tray and dark soil on the other. All the methods were the same, except for a few important changes. To get rid of scent trails, this time Nora wiped down the middle of the tray with a clean wet paper towel between trials. She also added equal amounts of water to both habitats to control for humidity. This ensured that if woodlice did show a preference for either habitat it would be due to habitat color, not humidity. This time Nora used a stopwatch and recorded how long it took for an individual to choose one of the two habitats.

Featured scientist: Nora Straquadine from Michigan State University

 Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 7.7

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

  • PowerPoint slideshow of images of woodlice and Nora’s experiment.
  • A great video to show before the Data Nugget to engage students with the activity – gives background on woodlice and describes the role that water plays for these crustaceans that live on land:

  • A video of woodlice on a fallen tree. This video has no audio, but can be useful for students to observe woodlice behavior:


About Nora: Nora is currently an undergraduate getting her B.S. in Zoology with a concentration in Zoo and Aquarium as well as a minor in Marine Ecosystem Management from Michigan State University. Although aquatic life is her main interest, she think it’s important to appreciate other animal groups and take a break to play and explore the nature around you. That curiosity was how she was able to volunteer in labs on campus from entomology to genetics, and how she came to spend a summer at the Kellogg Biological Station in Michigan.

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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.

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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Deadly windows

A white-throated sparrow caught during the experiment. You can see the band on it’s leg, used to make sure they did not record the same bird more than once.

The activities are as follows:

Glass makes for a great windowpane because you can see right through it. However, the fact that windows are see-through makes them very dangerous for birds. Have you ever accidentally run into a glass door or been confused by a tall mirror in a restaurant? Just like people, birds can mistake a see-through window or a mirrored pane for an opening to fly through or a place to get food and will accidentally fly into them. These window collisions can hurt the bird or even kill it. Window collisions kill nearly one billion birds every year!

Urban areas, with a lot of houses and stores, have a lot of windows. Resident birds that live in the area may get to know these buildings well and may learn to avoid the windows. However, not all the birds in an area live there year-round. There are also migrant birds that fly through urban areas during their seasonal migrations. In the fall, for example, migrant birds use gardens and parks in urban areas to rest along their journeys to their winter southern homes. During the fall migration, people have noticed that it seems like more birds fly into windows. This may be because migrant birds, especially the ones born that summer, are not familiar with the local buildings. While looking for food and places to sleep, migrant birds might have more trouble identifying windows and fly into them more often. However, it could also be that there are simply more window collisions in the fall because there are more birds in the area when migrant and resident birds co-occur in urban areas.

Researchers identify the species of each bird caught in one of the nets used in the study. They then place a metal bracelet on one leg so they will know if they catch the same bird again.

Natasha was visiting a friend who worked at a zoo when he told her about a problem they were having. For a few weeks in the fall, they would find dead birds under the windows, more than they would during the rest of the year. He wanted to figure out a way to prevent birds from hitting the exhibit windows. Natasha became interested in learning whether migrant birds were more likely to fly into windows than resident birds or if the number of window collisions only increase in the fall because there are a lot of birds around. To do this she would have to count the total number of birds in the area and also the total number of birds that were killed in window collisions, as well as identify the types of birds. To count the total number of birds in the area, Natasha hung nets that were about the same height as windows. When the birds got caught in the nets, Natasha could count and identify them. These data could then be used to calculate the proportion of migrants and residents flying at window-height. She put 10 nets up once a week for four hours, over the course of three months, and checked them every 15 minutes for any birds that got caught.

Researcher identifying a yellow-rumped warbler, one of the birds captured in the net as part of the study.

Then, she also checked under the windows in the same area to see what birds were killed from window collisions. She checked the windows every morning and evening for the three months of the study. Different species of birds are migratory or resident in the area where Natasha did her study. Each bird caught in nets was examined to identify its to species using its feathers, which would tell her whether the bird was a migrant or a resident. The same was done for birds found dead below windows.

If window collisions are really more dangerous for migrants, she predicted that a higher proportion of migrants would fly into windows than were caught in the nets. But, if window collisions were in the same proportion as the birds caught in the nets, she would have evidence that windows were just as dangerous for resident birds as for migrants.

Featured scientist: Natasha Hagemeyer from Old Dominion University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.7

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

To engage students with the lesson before they begin, or after the lesson to help them develop their own independent questions for the system, you can share the following videos:

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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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Finding Mr. Right

Mountain chickadee, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

Mountain chickadee, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

The activities are as follows:

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

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

Carrie conducting field research in winter, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

Carrie conducting field research in winter, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

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

In this species, females choose which males they will mate with. Males from the same elevation as the females may be best adapted to the location where the female lives. This means that when the female lays her eggs, her offspring will likely inherit traits that are well suited for that environment. If she mates with males that match her environment, she is setting up her offspring to be more successful and have higher survival where they will live. Carrie wondered if female mountain chickadees prefer to mate with males that are from the same elevation and therefor contribute to local adaptation by passing the adaptive behaviors on to the offspring. This process could contribute to the populations becoming more and more distinct. Offspring born in the high mountains will continue to inherit genes for good spatial memory, and those born at low elevations will inherit genes that allow them to be socially dominant.

Mountain chickadee, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

Mountain chickadee, photo by Vladimir Pravosudov

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

Watch a video of one of the experimental trials:

Featured scientist: Carrie Branch from University of Nevada Reno

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.5

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:


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

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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 they work with the Hawaiian swordtail cricket. They 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 their 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. They wanted to know whether the “micro” nuptial gifts help females lay more eggs, 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. They 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 and Technische Universität Dresden

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.9

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include: