#Evol2012: Evolution 2012 review, part 1

Last week, I went to Evolution 2012 in Ottawa, the first joint congress on Evolutionary Biology – bringing together 5 top societies (American Society of Naturalists, Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, European Society for Evolutionary Biology, Society for the Study of Evolution, and Society of Systematic Biologists) for one massive meeting. Kudos is very much due to Howard Rundle and Andrew Simons, of the universities of Ottawa and Carleton respectively, for organising such a huge and fantastic event: it lasted 5 days, where the 8.30am-5pm sessions featured 3 concurrent symposia and 13 concurrent talk sessions, around which there were a variety of workshops, meetings, presidential addresses, talks from invited guests, poster sessions, and even a live performance of ‘The Rap Guide to Evolution‘ from Baba Brinkman! Of course, I could only manage to attend a tiny proportion of these events (especially given that I turned up to Ottawa with my own talk unfinished), but I had a great time, learned a lot, and met a load of people. The talks which I wanted to see but failed to (for various reasons) would be way too extensive to list here, but I thought I’d give brief run-downs of some of those which I did get to. This is probably going to take me a while, so I’ll spread it out over a few days.

Note that a lot of this is based on my frankly indecipherable notes which I scrawled on a tiny notebook, so the details are extremely patchy; at some point over the next year, I really need to drum up the cash for a little tablet computer. Anyone with any ideas as to how I can trick my supervisor into buying one for me, just let me know…

Susan Bertram – Integrating behavioural and nutritional ecology

I was really excited about this talk, as Sue Bertram does a lot of work in condition-dependent acoustic signalling in crickets, so there’s a pretty obvious overlap between her research and mine. A fair amount of her presentation was about how the Geometric Framework (GF), a modelling approach developed by Steve Simpson and David Raubenheimer to investigate an animal’s balancing of nutrients, can be used to further investigate the ‘black box’ that we term condition. She used some interesting examples to discuss how ‘nutrient space’ affects fitness – and provided the week’s best cricket impression – in a talk where the central message was (unsurprisingly) to propose better amalgamation of nutritional ecology with behavioural ecology. It’s certainly an important concept, and a lot of people are working on this (I managed to miss my friend Felix Zajitschek‘s talk, but he did a lot of cool stuff with the likes of Alexei Maklakov on a similar angle before turning to the dark side of drosophila *boos*). There’s some interesting stuff going on as regards the effects of phosphorus, as well as the usual suspects of protein and carbohydrate, on cricket calling effort; they also have the bonus of having the EARS (electronic acoustic recording system) II setup, which measures a whole lot more than the original EARS (which I have) does. I’m jealous. I had a chat with Sue, and her student Sarah Harrison, later in  the week at Sarah’s poster (which was also great), and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on what’s coming out of her lab…

Russell Bonduriansky – The ecology of sexual conflict: background mortality rate can modulate male effects on female fitness

It’s always worth going to a Bonduriansky talk, because he is really, really smart. This was a pretty great one – he basically just presented something he’d been ‘thinking about a bit’, showed a model he’d made, and then had some time for questions and comments. As far as I can tell, it was an extension of a paper he published last year in the American Naturalist journal on ‘Sexual Selection and Conflict as Engines of Ecological Diversification‘; I’d recommend reading it, as I’d do a terrible job of summarising it. There were a few throwaway comments which could also have implications for lab studies: the central theme was that background mortality varies, and this modulates male effects on female fitness, but when we bring animals in to the lab then we extend lifespan (by reducing predation, some forms of stress, etc), and so we could be massively increasing sexual conflict. I’m going to go ahead and assume that Russell will have a paper out on this fairly soon, as he’s a bit of a publication machine, so definitely look out for that…

Kevin Judge – Evidence for hunger-driven hybridisation in a genus of sexually cannibalistic insects (Cyphoderis spp.)

Full disclosure: Kevin did his PhD in the great Darryl Gwynne‘s lab in Toronto alongside my supervisor, and I first met him last year when he visited Stirling before presenting at the ASAB winter meeting in London. In addition to being a great, friendly guy, and a fantastic naturalist (especially with regards to crickets and cricket-like insects), Kevin is doing some incredibly interesting work on linking micro- and macroevolution. He also has some great videos of bizarre insect sexual behaviour to show in his talks, prompting online responses such as this:

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In this talk, Kevin presented some research he’s been doing with various collaborators on several species of hump-winged grigs, cricket-like insects living in the Rocky Mountains. As with crickets, male grigs stridulate to create a calling song which attracts females; during mating, the females actually feast on the male’s fleshy hindwings… this provides them with extra nutrition, but the male cannot regrow these, so it’s in his interests to mate successfully without giving away too much (although the nutrition from this nuptial meal will help his offspring, he’s likely to achieve higher levels of fitness if he can mate multiply). Kevin showed a great video in which the male allows the female to climb on and start chomping away at him, while he attaches his ‘gin trap’: a weird genital morphology which basically clamps onto the female, clutching her to him while he transfers his spermatophore. As soon as this is done, he starts pushing her off with his hind legs, while she’s desperately trying to eat more. It’s amazing, and – via the magic of the intertrons – you can watch it here:

But it’s not just the weird mating behaviour that’s interesting here. In two species of grigs, Cyphoderris buckelli and Cyphoderris monstrosa, species which diverged a long time ago, the calling song is very similar. Kevin and colleagues discovered what appeared to be hybrids, identified by a different genital morphology from both C. buckelli and C. monstrosa, and used experiments to show that hungry females of one species would indeed mate with males of another species in order to get a meal. Perhaps, in areas harbouring both species, females of one may be attracted by the calling song of another, and will seize the opportunity to eat…  are males then making the best of this by using the gin trap to ensure that they at least get a mating from this? There’s a whole heap of really cool questions to answer with this system, and it’s definitely one to watch; check out this excellent BBC Nature article which features a bunch of Kevin’s great photos as well.

To be continued…

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