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Are males turned on by sexy females? Female attractiveness upregulates male reproductive physiology and behavior in zebra finches

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Testosterone (T) is a steroid hormone that affects behavior and reproductive traits (e.g. spermatogenesis and ornamentation) in vertebrates. In addition to long-term influences, T can rapidly increase in males following

Testosterone (T) is a steroid hormone that affects behavior and reproductive traits (e.g. spermatogenesis and ornamentation) in vertebrates. In addition to long-term influences, T can rapidly increase in males following aggressive male-male encounters. Less is known how females directly influence male T and behavior, though research with humans suggests that sexually attractive females elicit a greater increase in male T and reproductive behavior than unattractive females. In birds, the influence of female attractiveness on male T and behavior is currently untested. We hypothesized that T and courtship behavior in male zebra finches would correlate with female attractiveness. We used red leg bands to make females "attractive" and green bands to make them "unattractive" (unbanded females were controls) as previous research suggests that zebra finches prefer red colors over green in mating contexts. We collected blood from males before and after "speed-dating" trials to measure changes in plasma T and analyzed male courtship behaviors from trial video recordings. The likelihood of plasma T increasing after a trial was significantly greater in males who were with red-banded females compared to control females, suggesting males may find them more attractive than green or control females. Additionally, independent of band color, males who exhibited greater T differences initiated courtship sooner and spent more time closest to females. However, courtship initiation and time spent near females were not correlated with band color. Overall, our results suggest that female attractiveness can influence male reproductive physiology, but the presence of a female may trigger male courtship behavior.

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Date Created
  • 2014-05

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The Evolution of Hummingbird Coloration and Courtship Displays

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Animals have evolved a diversity of signaling traits, and in some species, they co-occur and are used simultaneously to communicate. Although much work has been done to understand why animals

Animals have evolved a diversity of signaling traits, and in some species, they co-occur and are used simultaneously to communicate. Although much work has been done to understand why animals possess multiple signals, studies do not typically address the role of inter-signal interactions, which may vary intra- and inter-specifically and help drive the evolutionary diversity in signals. For my dissertation, I tested how angle-dependent structural coloration, courtship displays, and the display environment interact and co-evolved in hummingbird species from the “bee” tribe (Mellisugini). Most “bee” hummingbird species possess an angle-dependent structurally colored throat patch and stereotyped courtship (shuttle) display. For 6 U.S. “bee” hummingbird species, I filmed male shuttle displays and mapped out the orientation- and-position-specific movements during the displays. With such display paths, I was able to then recreate each shuttle display in the field by moving plucked feathers from each male in space and time, as if they were naturally displaying, in order to measure each male’s color appearance during their display (i.e. the interactions between male hummingbird plumage, shuttle displays, and environment) from full-spectrum photographs. I tested how these interactions varied intra- and inter-specifically, and which of these originating traits might explain that variation. I first found that the solar-positional environment played a significant role in explaining variation in male color appearance within two species (Selasphorus platycercus and Calypte costae), and that different combinations of color-behavior-environment interactions made some males (in both species) appear bright, colorful, and flashy (i.e. their color appearance changes throughout a display), while other males maintained a consistent (non-flashing) color display. Among species, I found that plumage flashiness positively co-varied with male display behaviors, while another measure of male color appearance (average brightness/colorfulness) co-varied with the feather reflectance characteristics themselves. Additionally, species that had more exaggerated plumage features had less exaggerated shuttle displays. Altogether, my dissertation work illustrates the complexity of multiple signal evolution and how color-behavior-environment interactions are vital to understanding the evolution of colorful and behavioral display traits in animals.

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Date Created
  • 2018

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Color and communication in Habronattus jumping spiders: tests of sexual and ecological selection

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Differences between males and females can evolve through a variety of mechanisms, including sexual and ecological selection. Because coloration is evolutionarily labile, sexually dichromatic species are good models for understanding

Differences between males and females can evolve through a variety of mechanisms, including sexual and ecological selection. Because coloration is evolutionarily labile, sexually dichromatic species are good models for understanding the evolution of sex differences. While many jumping spiders exhibit diverse and brilliant coloration, they have been notably absent from such studies. In the genus Habronattus, females are drab and cryptic while males are brilliantly colored, displaying some of these colors to females during elaborate courtship dances. Here I test multiple hypotheses for the control and function of male color. In the field, I found that Habronattus males indiscriminately court any female they encounter (including other species), so I first examined the role that colors play in species recognition. I manipulated male colors in H. pyrrithrix and found that while they are not required for species recognition, the presence of red facial coloration improves courtship success, but only if males are courting in the sun. Because light environment affects transmission of color signals, the multi-colored displays of males may facilitate communication in variable and unpredictable environments. Because these colors can be costly to produce and maintain, they also have the potential to signal reliable information about male quality to potential female mates. I found that both red facial and green leg coloration is condition dependent in H. pyrrithrix and thus has the potential to signal quality. Yet, surprisingly, this variation in male color does not appear to be important to females. Males of many Habronattus species also exhibit conspicuous markings on the dorsal surface of their abdomens that are not present in females and are oriented away from females during courtship. In the field, I found that these markings are paired with increased leg-waving behavior in a way that resembles the pattern and behavior of wasps; this may provide protection by exploiting the aversions of predators. My data also suggest that different activity levels between the sexes have placed different selection pressures on their dorsal color patterns. Overall, these findings challenge some of the traditional ways that we think about color signaling and provide novel insights into the evolution of animal coloration.

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Date Created
  • 2012