Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Sexual selection and the lek paradox

A peacock, which made Darwin “sick.” Photo by aussiegal.

This week at the collaborative blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, guest contributor Tom Houslay makes sense of costly mating displays:

Time and again in the animal kingdom, we see exaggerated ornaments, vibrant colours, and fantastic acoustic and visual displays. Frogs and crickets advertise their whereabouts with loud calls, fireflies flash patterns with bioluminescence; greater sage grouse strut brazenly in open pastures. While they undoubtedly brighten up the world around us, these behaviours and morphologies can seem not only unnecessary, but downright detrimental to the survival of an individual. How, then, can their existence be resolved with our knowledge of evolution?

To find out how a single showy trait can come to “capture” all the genetic variation in a population, read the whole thing. On an almost totally unrelated note: if I ever open a gay bar, it will definitely be called Lek. ◼

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Advertising equality

I’m with Queerty on this one: the Australians make a much better ad for marriage equality than us schlubs in the States.

Go ahead, take a moment to find a tissue.

If anyone asked my opinion, though—which they haven’t—I’d say that there’s an important point missing from this ad, and from most of the pro-equality campaigns I’ve seen. That point is that gays, lesbians, and transgendered folks are already living stories like the one so movingly depicted above, and making lifelong commitments to each other, without waiting for anyone’s permission to do it.

My ideal advert for equality would simply be a series of short clips of committed queer couples—maybe just sitting there looking back at the camera, maybe recounting bits of the joys of life together. Each couple has accompanying subtitles: Alice and Rose, together 14 years, or Rob and Michael, together 5 years.

The point being, gay marriages already exist, and in many cases have been existing longer than a lot of the straight couples in the audience have been together. And it’s long past time for the government to acknowledge them. ◼

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Science online, pepper sprayed turkey edition

Happy Thanksgiving, U.S. readers. Photo by Bemzilla.

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How to interview for a faculty job

This is billed as “how to get a faculty job in 20 not-so-easy steps,” but it’s actually all about what to do when you’re invited out for an interview, which seems to me* to be eliding some even less easy steps, but whatever. It is, in fact, quite funny, and much of it is good advice for academic job interviewing at all levels, e.g.:

5. Wear a catheter. Your interview will consist of 1-2 days of 20-minute meetings scheduled back-to-back with absolutely anybody they could cram onto your schedule. There will be no bathroom breaks, no water breaks, and no insulin injections. This is exacerbated by the fact that every single one of the people you meet will want to take the 20-minutes as their coffee break. In the end, most of the interview will be a blur, except that you will be able to find the coffee cart from any point on campus blindfolded.

See also, the advice on the “interview dinner.” ◼

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* At this stage of the game, I would be so thrilled to be asked for a phone interview I might just ignore the call when it came, so as to preserve the blessed event as the current pinnacle of my job-hunting success.**

** No, of course I would not actually do this, because I would very much like a faculty job, thank you.

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Nothing in biology makes sense: Gut microbes and mate preference

Will this male fruit fly pick a mate based on what she ate? Photo by Max xx.

This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, Sarah Hird tackles a series of studies suggesting that fruit flies may pick mates reared on similar diets because their gut microbes make them do it.

In 1989, Diane Dodd reared fruit flies (Drosophila pseudoobscura) from a common stock on two different food sources: starch and maltose. She found that after multiple generations of isolation on their separate substrates, starch-flies preferred to mate with starch-flies and maltose-flies preferred to mate with maltose-flies. The result was robust and repeatable, but the reason why and its mechanism were unknown.

To find out how the mechanism was discovered, go read the whole thing. ◼

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Science online, sexist mosquitoes edition

Lab mouse. Photo by Rick Eh?.

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Tell Congress to increase NIH funding

Cross-posted from Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!.

For your consideration: a Change.org petition asking the U.S. Congress to increase funding to the National Institutes of Health by 3% in next year’s Federal budget. NIH is one of the biggest sources of public research funds in the U.S., and its support goes well beyond things immediately connected to human health and medicine—I did many analyses for my dissertation research on Joshua trees and yucca moths on a supercomputing cluster supported, in large part, by NIH funds.

Some would argue that the private sector should take over some of the lost funding for academic, basic research. The sad fact is that the private sector does not support the type of basic research that the NIH does; they take the results NIH-funded research and apply it to drug development. In addition, many entities in the private sector are currently slashing their Research & Development (R&D) budgets! For example, Pfizer recently cut its R & D budget by 1.5 billion.

Consider the following numbers. For 2011 budget, U.S. spending on:
Social security was $2564 per citizen (20.8% of the budget)
Defense was $2203 per citizen (18% of the budget)
Medicare was $1569 per citizen (12.8% of the budget)
Medicaid was $1172 per citizen (7.8% of the budget)
NIH was $99 per citizen (0.8% of the budget)

The original idea, as I understand it, is for this to be an “open letter” to Congress from working scientists across the nation, but supportive non-scientists should definitely sign on, too. ◼

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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Making sense of the latitudinal biodiversity gradient

Tropical forest along the Inca Trail in Peru. Photo by TheFutureIsUnwritten.

This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, Noah Reid describes a new study that tries to explain the latitudinal biodiversity gradient—that is, the reason why a tropical rainforest has so many more species than, say, the mighty forests of British Columbia.

Almost invariably across taxonomic groups, hemispheres and continents, as one moves from polar regions towards the equator, species diversity increases (see the figure for a depiction of global bird diversity). The concept of diversity here can be broken down into three parts: “alpha diversity” or the diversity of species in a single location; “beta diversity”, or the turnover of species observed when moving among locations; and “gamma diversity” or the diversity of species found in an entire region. The latitudinal diversity gradient holds true for all three elements.

To find out what the new study reveals, go read the whole thing. ◼

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Science online, rats and rice edition

Rice. Photo by tamaki.

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