What makes a female 'choosy', and what makes a male 'sexy'? How do the factors that determine 'choosiness' and 'sex appeal' interact?
Broadly, I am interested in signal communication and sexual selection. In particular, I study how females make mating decisions, and what impact those decisions have on the evolution of species. I seek to understand what factors communicate with whom to mate, how the 'best' mate might change with ecological and evolutonary time, and what consequences result when decision-making factors, such as visual cues, are altered or decay. I ask how females weigh certain male factors (size, coloration, parental ability, etc.), and whether this 'weighting' changes with time. Is there one factor that consistently 'trumps' them all? Do external factors (time of season, ecology of the surroundings, mate availability, density of mates) shape both the factors used in, and the robustness of, female mate choice? How general are mating decisions and courting strategies across individuals and populations, and can we, based on a set of variables, predict how female choice will change?
My study species: Three-Spined Sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus aculeatus)
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Some closely-related species are kept from interbreeding through mating decisions. For example, in many lakes of British Columbia, closely-related stickleback benthic-limnetic species pairs have repeatedly formed:
- Feed on the lake bed
- Appear to have small eyes; long, heavy bodies; and a horizonal jaw
- Feed in the surface waters on plankton
- Appear to have large eyes; short, slim bodies; and an upturned jaw
These species are kept distinct in many lakes, but in one of these lakes, Enos, the species have rapidly (<20 generations) collapsed into a hybrid swarm. Can a better understanding of female choice prevent such occurances? Let's find out!