Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fatal Attraction: Praying Mantises (A Guest Post)

By Britta Bibbo

We all know the character: an incredibly beautiful woman that seduces the rough-and-tumble action hero, only for him to later find himself chained up over a lava pit with sharks in it! …Or something like that. A “femme fatal” is the idea of a beautiful woman who leads men to their demise. None are more perfect for this role than the female praying mantis. Praying mantis females practice the art of deception through sexual cannibalism. It’s exactly how it sounds: the male is attracted to the female and tries to make some babies, but instead ends up being devoured. Sexual cannibalism hardly seems like a good strategy for keeping the mantis population up, but some argue it’s merely females taking advantage of every scrap of food they can find… even if it’s a loving male.

False garden mantis (Pseudomantis albofimbriata). Image by Donald Hobern from Wikimedia Commons.
When male mantises encounter a female in the wild they only have one thing on the brain, while a female may be more interested in self-preservation. If she hasn’t encountered food for a few days she will be VERY hungry and not all that interested in mating; in many species of mantises it is known that female mantises will eat males, even while having sex! So how do female mantises attract males?

For most insects, females are able to attract males with pheromones, chemicals released from an individual that affect other individuals of the same species. For instance, females can emit pheromones that will be telling of their age, reproductive status, and body condition. Males are able to detect pheromones from great distances and these pheromones play a role in allowing a male to determine how attractive a female could be. Before any sexy time can begin, females have to show that they are open to male advances. Showing a male you’ve never met before that you’re interested can be a difficult task- so females typically emit pheromones that are known as honest signals. These signals accurately convey female interest in mating, as well as her reproductive status, age, and body condition. Because the majority of females are being honest, males don’t have to think twice about their mate’s intentions. This is where female deception comes into play. If a female takes advantage of the lack of male wariness, she could end up with an easy meal. This deception by the females is what scientists know as the Femme Fatale hypothesis. This hypothesis explains that female mantises are naturally selected to deceive male mantises, and exploit them as food. This idea hasn’t had much backing evidence until Dr. Kate Barry of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia sought to test this hypothesis with the false garden mantis (Pseudomantis albofimbriata).

After considering the test subjects and how the mantises communicate, Kate expected one of three possible outcomes:

1. There will be no pattern between female hunger and male attraction (if female false garden mantises are not femme fatales and false garden mantis pheromones do not communicate feeding-related information).

2. The well-fed females will attract the most males, while hungry females will attract the fewest males (if female false garden mantises are not femme fatales and females are always honest about their quality and willingness to mate).

3. The hungriest females will attract the most males, while well-fed females will still attract some males (if female false garden mantises are femme fatales and females are dishonest about their quality and willingness to mate when they are hungry).

To test her expectations, Kate gathered juvenile mantises that were close to their adult forms to have many male and female mantises that have no previous mating experience. Once the mantises were adults, females were given different feeding regimens to have a range of hunger. Categories included Good (well-fed), Medium (slightly less fed), Poor (hungry), and Very Poor (very, very hungry). Adult mantises were housed in a circular cage that separated each female individually around the edge, while the males were kept in the center.

Diagram of cage experiment was conducted in. Image by Britta Bibbo.
To allow the males to smell the female pheromones, researchers separated males by special walls that the males could not see through, but could still detect the pheromones given off by a female. The number of males on a female’s side of the cage was used to measure how attractive her pheromones were to the males.

The results of this study concluded that pheromones produced by the females that were very hungry were the most attractive to males. Through deception, the hungriest females are seen as sexier than well-fed, healthy females that are willing to mate! This result is surprising; normally females that are well-fed are seen as “sexier” because they have more nutrients available to them, making them more fertile. Hungry females have fewer nutrients available to them, making them less fertile, and therefore not as “sexy”. These hungry female mantises are advertising themselves as well-fed, fertile, and ready to rock when really, they’re not. Simply put, these results show that males are being catfished, and then consumed. Whether hungry females are actively trying to deceive males or if it’s just coincidental still needs to be looked into, but for now, be thankful for a partner who will see you as more than just a piece of meat!

Literature Cited:

Barry, K. (2014). Sexual deception in a cannibalistic mating system? Testing the Femme Fatale hypothesis Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282 (1800), 20141428-20141428 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1428

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Best Moms in the Animal Kingdom

Moms are really important to life on Earth, as evidenced by the fact that maternal care is fairly common across the animal kingdom. In most species, females produce fewer, larger, and costlier eggs than males do sperm. Therefore, it is usually beneficial to females to maximize the possible success of each one, sometimes by gestating them inside their own bodies (as mammals do), or incubating the eggs until they are ready to hatch (as birds do), or by providing prolonged protection, food and training until they are ready to take on the world for themselves. But there is still a lot of variation in how and how much each mother gives to her offspring. Here are some of the best moms in the animal kingdom:

1. The Endurance Prize goes to orangutans: Orangutan infants cling to their moms’ bellies non-stop for the first four months of their life and they continue to completely depend on their moms for the first two years for food and transport. Their moms will continue to carry them often until they are five and will sometimes continue to breastfeed them until they are eight! After that, the young still stay close to mom, learning from her and helping her until they are sometimes in their teens.

An orangutan mama and toddler. Photo by Mistvan at Wikimedia Commons.

2. The Provider Prize goes to the crab spider, Diaea ergandros: These crab spider moms create a brood chamber and nest out of eucalyptus leaves. They guard their eggs and then spiderlings, providing protection and prey for food. These moms also make extra eggs, just for their babies to eat, and finally, they give themselves… quite literally! The babies eat their mothers completely in a rare behavior called matriphagy.


3. The Pregnancy Prize goes to elephants: Elephants are pregnant for about 22 months… nearly two years! And a baby elephant is not light to carry around… by the time it is born, it will weigh nearly 250 pounds! Just the thought of it makes me uncomfortable. So why would elephant moms need to gestate their young for such an incredibly long time? It is thought that the long gestation is needed for the proper development of their brains, so they are born with the complex cognitive and social skills needed to survive in their herd.

An African elephant family plays in the hot sun. Photo by Bernard Dupont at Wikimedia Commons.

4. The Brooding Prize goes to a deep-sea octopus: Two years is a very long time to carry a developing baby inside your body, but some animals care for their developing empryos ouside of their bodies with a behavior called brooding. Although brooding may sound easier than pregnancy, it is not for the faint of heart. A deep-sea octopus was observed brooding her eggs in the Monterey Submarine Canyon off central California for 53 months… That is nearly 4 and a half years! And that whole time she did not eat, but instead guarded and aerated the water around her precious eggs.

A deep-sea octopus. Photo by NOAA at Wikimedia Commons.

5. The Multi-Generational Prize goes to humans: Many human moms are not only good mothers, but also good grandmothers. Grandparenting is extremely rare in the animal kingdom (the first documented case of grandparenting in non-humans was as recent as 2008) and human females excel at it. They provide care, advice, resources, lessons and hugs to increase the success of their offspring and grand-offspring… It’s amazing other species haven’t picked up on this amazing secret yet!

The best moms in the animal kingdom. Photos by Sarah Jane Alger.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Caught in My Web: Ants Teach Us That Societal Cooperation is Possible

Image by Luc Viatour at Wikimedia Commons.
Societies are made up of lots of individuals, which each have different needs, perspectives, strengths and weaknesses. Cooperating with many individuals may have great benefits, but also poses giant challenges, even for a species as bright as our own. Humble ants may have some useful insight for us - They are masters of cooperation. So for this edition of Caught in My Web, we observe the inspirational societal cooperation of ants.

1. At Inspiring Science, Sedeer el-Showk explains how ants coordinate their foraging expeditions to maximize efficiency, despite the fact that they don't have a leader telling them what to do, when to do it and how to do it.

2. This video from Nature Communications shows ants working together to move a giant (to them) Cheerio.



3. Ben Hooper at UPI shares a video with us of a fire ant colony that responded to flooding in Louisiana by clinging together to form an ant life-raft.

And this video shows ants going even further, using their bodies to create a floating bridge for other foraging ants to cross.



4. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology explain how ants form these rafts and demonstrate how they all stay dry.

5. At neuroecology, Adam J. Calhoun discusses how colony differences in foraging behavior can be passed down to new colonies. So maybe, those of us that figure this cooperation thing out can share the advice with the rest of us.