Featured paper: cheating Common Yellowthroats, or, the world is more complex than you think

There is a thing that happens a lot in biology, especially in animal behavior: one set of researchers finds an interesting relationship, like, say, “Birds prefer to eat bugs off of cows with lots of spots, and don’t like to eat bugs off of cows with no spots.” (This is a made-up example.)

Starlings flying near a cow; Pt Reyes, CA.

Blackbirds flying near a cow, Pt Reyes, CA.

Then, some other researchers do a study and say, “Hey, our birds prefer to eat bugs off of cows with no spots! That’s the opposite!”

Then still different researchers do another study and say, “Our birds don’t care at all about the number of spots, they just care whether the spots make a shape like a smiley face. You guys must all have made a mistake. The Smiley Face Rule is the new Lek Paradox! #nobelplease”

To put it less ridiculously: scientists get different results sometimes, and it can be hard to figure out why. Did someone make a mistake? Who is right? Today’s featured paper takes an example of this confusing scientific disagreement and elegantly makes sense of everything, with the help of this handsome little bird:

Common Yellowthroat (male). Photo by Dan Pancamo*

Common Yellowthroat (male).
Photo by Dan Pancamo*

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Featured paper: cuttlefish are lying cheaters

Although the cuttlefish may be best known for making those flat cuttlefish bones that your pet bird nibbles to get calcium, this paper shows that it should be known for being a lying cheater.

That was uncalled for. Photo by Tom Olliver

That was uncalled for.
Photo by Tom Olliver

Cuttlefish, like their relatives the squids and the octopuses, are masters of visual communication. They can change their appearance almost instantaneously (video here), and they use color and pattern to say things like “Back off, I’m angry!” and “Pretty lady, I would like to do some romance with you now,” and “Please don’t do romance with me, I am male.”

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Featured paper: turkeys help their relatives get lucky

Featured paper: Thanksgiving edition. And it’s doubly relevant – it’s about turkeys and family!

AH Krakauer. 2005. Kin selection and cooperative courtship in wild turkeys. Nature vol. 434, pp. 69 – 72.

Wild turkeys males show off in front of females in the hopes of being impressive enough to get to mate. While some males show off alone, others form “coalitions” of two to four males and all display for females together. However only one male in each coalition – the dominant male – ever gets to mate. So why in the world do the other male turkeys help him, if they never get to mate? Why don’t they display alone, where they’d at least have a chance at mating?

[Photo from Smart Kitchen]

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Featured paper: side-blotched lizards play rock-paper-scissors

B Sinervo and CM Lively. 1996. The rock-paper-scissors game and the evolution of alternative male strategies. Nature vol. 380, pp. 240-243.

(Side note: I don’t want to feature-paper too many Science or Nature papers, since those journals are so high-profile that you’re likely to hear about the work elsewhere, and part of the point of this feature is that papers in “lesser” journals can be awesome too; but this paper is classic and fun, so I’ll make an exception.)

Male side-blotched lizards come in three flavors colors: orange-throated, blue-throated, and yellow-throated. Orange males are highly aggressive and defend large territories. Blue males are less aggressive, defending smaller territories. Yellow males look like females and don’t defend territories at all. All three colors compete to mate with females and have offspring. Throat color is highly heritable: orange males have orange sons, blue males have blue sons, yellow males have yellow sons.

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