No Food. No Sex. No (Ecosystem) Service.

Written by: Emily Weigel

Primary Source: Choice Words with Choosy_Female

Hi All!

Sorry for the delay in posting. I have recently started taking a science outreach course through SciFund. Because that and a few guest talks have taken up my time earmarked for ‘outreach’, I’ve been slow to post. But never fear! My colleagues at SciFund have done a great job helping me refine my blogging skillz (I get to add a ‘z’ because I’m an awkward oldie doing a tech thing, right?) . Here’s a short post created and edited as a part of the course, and yes, I’d highly recommend taking the course if you’re into learning about outreach, particularly that on digital media.

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When’s the last time you thought about how the animals around you get it on? Animal sex might be amusing (as I’d argue sex should always be), but it is also critical to how ecosystems survive.

Sex is just male + female = offspring, right? Even though it takes two to tango, when males and females mate, they do so from different perspectives. No, I’m not talking about physical positions, but rather the positions they have in investing in offspring. It’s often the case that females must invest heavily in the production of relatively few eggs, while males tend to make many, many sperm. Because caring for offspring often also falls to females, the investment females make in producing offspring is usually much more costly than for males. Therefore, it’s much more critical that females choose the right males as mates, and because females are choosy, males then must compete for their attention.

baby

This crab is waving it’s huge claw, not at all unlike saying, “Hey Baby” at a bar in humans. Organisms may typically mate within species, but are dependent on other species for food.

For some great examples, see PBS’ The Mating Game: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/sex/mating/

Most of the time female choice matches what she ‘should’ prefer. That is, females pickthe male that provides her offspring (or her) with resources or genes which aid survival and reproduction in that environment.  To facilitate this selection process, females must then spend time searching and evaluating males, and males often travel great distances or fight off many competitors to find and court a mate. In sum, good sex takes work.

Although many animals have mechanisms to pick the right mate, sometimes we don’t always find the right partner (as this turtle does when soliciting this shoe ). For many animals, the surge of human disturbances in the environment is making it increasingly hard to find and assess mates. Whether it is increased city noise drowning out a bird’s song, or turbid waters that obscure bright male signals, we’re screwing up mating for many animals (pardon the pun).

When the environment is disturbed in some way, we can effectively ‘block’ sex from happening as it should, which means many offspring that could be be produced 1) are not, or 2) those that do may be poorly suited to that environment. When females have trouble finding and assessing males, and males have trouble showing off for females, we get altered population sizes that can even ripple throughout an environment through food. Like us, animals are dependent on other organisms (plants, animals, fungi, etc.) for food, and when mating doesn’t happen the organisms you eat, food becomes scarcer. Hence, in blocking sex, you can be starving some other organisms, too!

web

Organisms may typically mate within species, but are dependent on other species for food.

So the next time you need a reason to turn off your loud music or a porch light, you’re not just conserving energy. You’re helping to set the natural mood for many creatures. Be a good wingman for the winged, and their buddies.

 

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Emily Weigel
Emily Weigel (@Choosy_Female) is Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Zoology and in the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior Program at Michigan State University. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biology with a focus on interdisciplinary research from the Georgia Institute of Technology. At MSU, Weigel conducts research in the lab of Dr. Jenny Boughman and is affiliated with the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. Her dissertation research focuses on how female choice and investment interact with male mating strategies. Additionally, Weigel’s education research asks how and why a background in genetics affects student performance in evolutionary biology. When not researching, Weigel enjoys playing soccer, surfing Netflix, and promoting STEM in the community.
Emily Weigel

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