Here are some more notes on talks that I enjoyed at Evolution Ottawa 2012, with links to finding out more if you are so inclined…
Emilie Snell-Rood – Changing nutrient dynamics and the relaxation of sexual selection: effects of human-altered nitrogen inputs on butterfly mate choice
I was really blown away by Snell-Rood’s talk, and a look at her research interests on her lab page shows that she’s working on some really interesting stuff and with very cool systems (including Onthophagus nigriventis, which have a very cool male dimorphism, work on which I wrote about previously on Nature!Sex!TopTips!). This talk looked at how the increased availability of a once-limited nutrient was affecting mate choice, using the cabbage white butterfly Pieris rapae. I’ve written in greater detail before on how variation in resource acquisition is important for the maintenance of genetic variation in sexually-selected ornaments, and it turns out that the acquisition and processing of nitrogen, a once-scarce resource, is important for the P. rapae male’s secondary sexual trait (ultraviolet signalling). Since around the end of World War II, fertiliser use in the USA has skyrocketed, flooding the system with nitrogen; Snell-Rood and her lab were interested in whether P. rapae ornamentation has lost ‘condition-dependence’ over time, given that this important resource is now widely available to all individuals?
One of the ways which we can use to figure out if a signal is condition-dependent is to look at allometry, or the scaling relationship between two traits (for more detail, see this great article by Alexander Shingleton, or this rather more in-depth paper by Russell Bonduriansky). A typical study would be to plot the trait of interest against body size; on the log-log scale, we’d expect a standard trait to have a slope of 1, so it is always in proportion to body size. Condition-dependence is a special type of plasticity, however, meaning that those in higher condition can afford the costs of increased investment in such traits. We’d therefore expect to see a slope greater than 1, i.e., larger individuals have proportionally larger traits. This is called positive allometry. Using museum specimens and previously collected data (if my memory serves me correctly), Snell-Rood found that after WWII – and thus after the environment became flooded with high levels of nitrogen – these butterflies no longer exhibited a greater body size : ornament correlation. This is a really neat study, and I’m very excited to read the paper when it arrives – Snell-Rood also mentioned a few other experiment underway in her lab that sound very cool, using irradiated fathers (so likely more deleterious mutations) and differing levels of nitrogen to investigate ornamentation and female choice. This is extremely awesome! Until then, you’ll have to make do with this interesting review she wrote recently on adaptive phenotypic plasticity…
Devin Arbuthnott – Ecology and sexual conflict in Drosophila melanogaster
This talk centred around the idea that sexual conflict and ecology may not be as separate as one might think, and that adaptation to different environments may promote parallel changes in sexual conflict and population interactions. I don’t have much in the way of notes from this talk, but Arbuthnott is working on some very cool stuff, and published a paper in Evolution recently with Howard Rundle that has some very interesting implications: ‘Sexual selection is ineffectual or inhibits the purging of deleterious mutations in Drosophila melanogaster‘.
Christopher Chandler – Runaway sexual selection leads to good genes
Chandler presented some work on how runaway sexual selection and good genes are not mutually exclusive, using the ‘Avida‘ platform. This is a computational system which uses self-replicating digital organisms to investigate questions that we can’t address with natural organisms. As someone with a computing background, I’m really interested to see whether this type of work gains more acceptance in the mainstream literature. Avida is currently used in the ‘DevoLab‘ for teaching evolution at Michigan State University; the 2004 Ofria & Wilkes paper describing the system can be found here.
Erin McCullough – Elaborate weapons: the costs of producing and carrying horns in a giant rhinoceros beetle
I’ll be honest: I pretty much just went to this talk as, after a couple of theory-heavy talks, I wanted to see some cool pictures of giant horned beetles. McCullough didn’t disappoint in that regard, but also presented some very cool work that also seems to challenge our ideas of the costs involved in the carrying and production of oversized secondary sexual characters. She found that, in the species Trypoxylus dichotomus, horns are not costly in terms of body mass as they are hollow and air-filled. McCullough is interested in how such horns affect flying, which is important for mate-searching, and found that any issues in regards to drag are more likely due to body angle than horn size, with horns really having only a trivial effect on flight. She found no evidence for allocation trade-offs, merely some evidence for compensation in terms of male flight apparatus (but not, for example, changes in muscle mass). McCullough’s recent paper in Behavioural Ecology discusses whether horns were costly in the past, and how this may have led to compensatory changes in terms of wing and muscle morphology. I’m excited to see what further research tells us about the evolution of horns in this particular species.
That’s all for now, but plenty more to come…