Tripedal gait

Lovebird parrot climbs on three legs

Lovebird parrot climbs on three legs

When climbing vertically, a lovebird parrot has an extra leg at its disposal: its beak, according to research by Melody Young and colleagues.

Woodpeckers, nuthatches, treecreepers, parrots, and parakeets: all these birds are able to move up against a tree trunk. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, and treecreepers do so by hopping forward, both legs briefly releasing from the ground simultaneously. Parrots and parakeets do it differently. They clamber – using their beaks as a third leg, as Melody Young and colleagues show.

Everyone has observed parrots and parakeets using their beaks when climbing up. But do they really use their beak as a leg, or just for support and balance, in the same way as birds often use their tail? To find out, Young investigated the climbing skills of the rosy-faced lovebird, Agapornis roseicollis, a parrot from Southwest Africa.

Novel function

She brought six animals into the lab and let them walk across a runway at different inclinations. She filmed their gait with a high-speed camera and measured the force that legs, beak, and tail exerted on the substrate.

The lovebirds often used their beak and tail when walking if the runway was set up steeper than 45° inclination. If it was positioned vertically, beak and tail were always necessary. In that case, the beak functioned as an extra leg, as it turned out. The animals put both legs and beak forward in turn: right leg, left leg, beak, right leg, left leg, beak. Measured forces also showed that the beak plays a similar role as the legs in propulsion.

The tail helps support and balance the bird.

Parrots have given their beak a second function as an extra leg to climb with. The neck muscles must also have been adapted to this new task.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Rosy-faced lovebird. User Nbansal4732 of the English Wikipedia (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.5)

Source:
Melody W. Young, M.W., E. Dickinson, N.D. Flaim & M.C. Granatosky, 2022. Overcoming a ‘forbidden phenotype’: the parrot’s head supports, propels and powers tripedal locomotion. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 289: 20220245. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2022.0245

Detering owls by buzzing

Greater mouse-eared bat mimics the sound of bees and wasps

greater mouse-eared bat deludes owls by buzzing

Owls avoid the buzzes of angry bees and wasps. The greater mouse-eared bat takes advantage of that fear by mimicking the sound, Leonardo Ancillotto and colleagues show.

A greater mouse-eared bat in stress behaves weird: it buzzes like a startled group of bees or wasps. Leonardo Ancillotto and colleagues noticed this when they handled the animals during their research. They wondered whether the bats mimic the sound of alarmed bees and wasps when they feel threatened by a potential predator to deter it. It was worth a study.

The greater mouse-eared bat, Myotis myotis, occurs in most European countries. Its enemies are owls, which are nocturnal like the bats.

Larynx

To find out, the researchers first analysed sound recordings of buzzing bats and compared that to the buzzing sounds that several species of bees and wasps produce when they are harassed and defend their nests. Among those species were honeybee (Apis mellifera) and hornet (Vespa crabro). And yes: the buzzing sounds were similar, especially to the ears of an owl.

The similarity is remarkable because the sound is created in different ways. Bees and wasps buzz by beating their wings, while bats produce the sound with the larynx.

Next, the researchers conducted playback experiments in which they broadcasted the buzzing sounds of honeybee, hornet or greater mouse-eared bat to a number of barn owls and tawny owls. The buzzing of the bat was most similar to that of honeybee and hornet. In addition, these insects live in tree cavities, in which owls are interested. As control, they broadcasted the communication calls of another bat species, the European free-tailed bat (Tadarida teniotis).

Experience

The owls moved away from loudspeakers that emitted buzzes, whether these were produced by honeybee, hornet, or greater mouse-eared bat. Bat communication calls, in contrast, attracted them. Wild owls, which may have encountered angry bees or wasps and suffered painful stings, were even more averse to buzzing sounds than owls that had been raised in captivity.

Does it make sense that owls, which are nocturnal animals, are afraid of bees and wasps, which are active during the day? Yes, that fear is conceivable. Honeybees fly until late evening in summer and hornets may fly at night, under moonlight or artificial light. Barn owls appear already at dusk, and when they have hungry young to feed, tawny owls sometimes even hunt during the day.

Apparently, the owls are afraid of bees and wasps and the bats delude them. Buzzing like bees or wasps, acoustic mimicry, may be all they can do to escape from their predator.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Greater mouse-eared bat. Kovács Richárd (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Source:
Ancillotto, L., D. Pafundi, F. Cappa, G. Chaverri, M. Gamba, R. Cervo & D. Russo, 2022. Bats mimic hymenopteran insect sounds to deter predators. Current Biology 32: R408-R409. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.03.052

Food supply according to demand

Leafcutter ant prevents fungus garden from starving

Acromyrmex octospinosus also is a lefcutter ant species

The fungus-breeding ant Acromyrmex ambiguus checks its crop and intervenes if it threatens to starve, Daniela Römer and colleagues show.

Leafcutter ants grow fungus on plant material in their underground nests with chambers. The ant workers cultivate their crop with care, according to research by Daniela Römer and colleagues on Acromyrmex ambiguus: if the fungus garden in one of the nest chambers deteriorates because of lack of food, they will bring it more pieces of fresh green leaves.

Acromyrmex balzani carrying a leaf to its cropAnts are unable to digest plant leaves, but, thanks to their crop, fungus growing ants still are herbivorous. The fungus breaks down plant material and converts it into digestible, nutritious globules. The larvae are completely dependent on that food, the workers also eat it.

It was already known that leafcutter ants, which live in North, Central and South America, take excellent care of their crops. They have to, of course, because if the fungus dies, all their effort to grow it is wasted and the larvae have no food.

Even distribution

Acromyrmex ambiguus is such leaf cutter species; it lives in nests holding thousands of chambers in which fungus grows and brood is raised. Römer wanted to know how the workers distribute the leaf material they collect – i.e., food for the fungus – equally among those chambers.

The experiments she conducted once again show how skilled the small farmers are. The researchers have a colony of Acromyrmex ambiguus in the lab. It is housed in an artificial nest with a number of nest chambers that are filled with fungus, about thousand workers, and ant brood. For the experiments, they placed three of those nest chambers serially, each with its own access tube connected to a main corridor. Chambers with fresh leaf material and with water and honey for the workers were connected to one end of the main corridor. At the other end was a box to which the ants could bring waste. Video cameras recorded the workers’ behaviour.

In experiments in which the fungus in every nest chamber was in good condition, the workers distributed the pieces of leaf evenly among those three chambers: they delivered a similar amount to each one.

Undernourished

But in several trials, the researchers had starved the fungus in the center chamber by disconnecting it from chambers with pieces of leaf during two days before the experiment. The workers in that chamber had been unable to provide food for the fungus. As a result, the normal greyish-green top layer of the fungal mass had vanished.

In these experiments, the ants brought much more pieces of leaf to the center chamber than to the other two. They probably noticed that the fungus crop in this chamber was in bad condition and demanded more food because of the smell it emitted. So, they tried to save the dying fungus garden with extra care.

Workers of Acromyrmex ambiguus, and probably also those of other leafcutter ants, are farmers that monitor how their crop is doing. If its condition deteriorates, they react appropriately.

Willy van Strien

Photos: two different fungus growing Acromyrmex species
Large: Acromyrmex octospinosus. Deadstar0 (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Small: Acromyrmex balzani. Alex Wild (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons, Public Domain)

Source:
Römer, D., G.P. Aguilar, A. Meyer & F. Roces, 2022. Symbiont demand guides resource supply: leaf‑cutting ants preferentially deliver their harvested fragments to undernourished fungus gardens. The Science of Nature 109: 25. Doi: 10.1007/s00114-022-01797-7

Emergency leap after mating

Spider male escapes from cannibalism

Philoponella prominens male jumps away to safety after mating

With a catapult mechanism, a male of the spider Philoponella prominens manages to escape his hungry partner after copulation. Shichang Zhang and colleagues recorded it on video.

For many male spiders, mating is life-threatening. Because to a female, a male not only is a supplier of sperm that she can use to fertilize her eggs, but also a tasty snack. And when he has given his sperm, he is just a meal. Dying without siring offspring is no option. So, he has to proceed with caution, and leave immediately after finishing copulation.

A Philoponella prominens male, a spider species from woods of central China, is very accomplished. After mating, he swiftly leaps away, out of her reach, Shichang Zhang and colleagues show. They recorded mating and leaping with a high-speed camera.

High pressure

During mating, which lasts half a minute, he folds his two front legs against her, the researchers observed. By suddenly stretching them afterwards, he pushes off and shoots away. He had already secured himself before with a safety line of silk, which he had tied to the edge of her web. After leaping, he crawls back via that line to mate with her again. He is able to repeat the action up to six times.

Spiders move their legs not only with muscles, but also use hydraulics. They bend the legs by contracting flexor muscles but lack extensor muscles. Instead, they fill the joints with body fluid at high pressure, so that the legs stretch by released hydraulic power as the flexor muscles are relaxed. In this way, a male Philoponella prominens jumps from his partner. He reaches a speed of about seventy centimeters per second, spinning around at high speed. A female is unable to grasp him.

The leap is lifesaving, as the researchers showed. If they prevented a male from leaping with a fine brush, he was grabbed by his partner and eaten. As if he were just prey.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Philoponella prominens, mala above female. © Shichang Zhang

Emergency leap on video

Another spider male that has to be careful: Maevia inclemens

Source:
Zhang, S., Y. Liu, Y. Ma, H. Wang, Y. Zhao, M. Kuntner & D. Li, 2022. Male spiders avoid sexual cannibalism with a catapult mechanism. Current Biology 32: R341-R359. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.03.051

First migration trip in Caspian tern

Father teaches young bird how to travel

Caspian tern father accompanies young during first autumn migration

Young Caspian terns learn from their father how to migrate to the wintering grounds. When, in following years, they make that autumn trip independently, they remember their fathers’ lesson, Patrik Byholm and colleagues show.

A young Caspian tern that is born at the end of May along the coast of Finland or Sweden, will migrate to West Africa at the end of summer to hibernate there. Its father’s job is to guide it on that first journey, Patrik Byholm and colleagues noted.

The researchers wanted to know how information about autumn migration – route and stopover sites – is passed on from one generation to the next. To find out, they equipped birds with GPS tracking devices.

The Caspian tern, Hydroprogne caspia, is found in many places in the world. In Europe, it also breeds along the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and in North America along ocean coasts and the great lakes. Some birds from Finland and Sweden make a stop in the Netherlands during their migration to Africa. They travel singly or in small family groups, which are single-parent families.

Reduced tempo

The collected travel data shows that couples that started a nest with two or three eggs in spring and raised their young together, leave each other after the breeding season. They travel separately, sometimes weeks apart, to the wintering area.

Young birds travel with one of the parents, and mostly, that is the father. They cannot travel safely on their own: young terns that for one reason or another lose contact with parents, are captured by birds of prey. So, they stay close to their father during the trip. He teaches them the route and knows good stopover sites, where the birds can roost and forage during the migration. The lesson is learned: the young birds will follow the same route southwards in the years that follow, using the same stopover sites.

Fathers that accompany one or a few young, will adjust their tempo a bit. They progress less quickly than adult birds traveling alone. This is mainly because young birds take more time to rest.

After arrival, the bond between father and young loosens and parental care finishes. They gradually spend less time without each other, and after a month or two they stop seeing each other at all. Sometimes, a young travels a little further south, in the company of another congener.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Colony of Caspian tern. Dmitry Mikhirev (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Source:
Byholm, P., M. Beal, N. Isaksson, U. Lötberg & S. Åkesson, 2022. Paternal transmission of migration knowledge in a long-distance bird migrant. Nature Communications 13: 1566. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-29300-w

Increasing efficiency in brood parasite

Cuckoo catfish improves its timing

Cuckoo catfish, Synodontis multipunctatus, improves efficiency by practizing

It is not easy for a cuckoo catfish to get its eggs adopted by intended host parents, because these are wary. But it learns the trick by experience, as Holger Zimmermann and colleagues show.

Cuckoo catfish dump their eggs at host parents to let them take care of their offspring: they are brood parasites. That seems easy and, in a way, it is, because the eggs can develop safely without the real parents having to worry. But they do have to bring them to the host parents, and that is not so easy. In that sense, cuckoo catfish spend more effort for their offspring than most fish, which simply lay eggs and leave them behind.

They have to practice the art of parasitism, Holger Zimmermann and colleagues write. The cuckoo catfish (Synodontis multipunctatus) is, as far as we know, the only fish species that, like a cuckoo, relegates the raising of its offspring to others. It lives in Lake Tanganyika in Africa.

Abuse

It takes advantage of species of cichlids that have the most extensive form of parental care, the so-called mouthbrooders. In these species, mothers take the fertilized eggs in the mouth and keep them there until they hatch, after a few weeks.

During spawning, such mouthbrooding cichlids circle around each other and release eggs and sperm; in between acts, they defend the spawning site against intruders.

But a group of cuckoo catfish may intrude. They consume some cichlid eggs before the mother has been able to collect them and drop a few eggs themselves and fertilize them. The cichlid mother panics and collects her eggs as fast as she can; in her haste, she also takes up catfish eggs.

The catfish must interfere at exactly the right time, when the female cichlid is busy laying eggs; it’s a matter of seconds. By experience, they learn to improve the timing of egg laying and fertilization, Zimmermann shows with experiments in tanks, in which he exposed cichlids (4 males and 12 females) to three cuckoo catfish pairs.

Sharper timing

The researchers searched for host parents that have no resistance against the underwater cuckoo. With resilient host parents, the learning process of the parasite would not show up. They selected the mouthbrooder Astatotilapia burtoni, which lives in Lake Tanganyika and is known to the catfish. But they took a population from a neighbouring river, where the cuckoo catfish does not occur. The chosen host parents have no innate defences against cuckoo catfish, nor do they learn to avoid it, but they do behave aggressively towards any fish that disturb the spawning to predate on eggs.

Unexperienced cuckoo catfish almost never managed to get their eggs taken up by these host parents. Only 3 percent of their attempts succeeded. But after some time – in the experiments after four months, about 30 attempts – things got much better: more than 25 percent of the attempts now was successful. That success rate did not increase further. Experienced catfish also managed to consume more eggs of the host parents in the brief time available.

The improvement was possible because the parasites learn to lay and fertilize their eggs at precisely the right time, as behavioural observations showed. In addition, groups of catfish improve the coordination of their intrusive act.

Host parent is loser

Most attempts fail, though, even in experienced cuckoo catfish, because the vigilant cichlids outsmart their enemy. But that does not matter, because the profits for the parasite are large if the action does succeed. A host mother then carries on average five parasite eggs. The catfish will hatch sooner than the cichlids, and the young catfish devour some cichlid embryos.

The host mother is the loser. She is abused and produces fewer young of her own.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Cuckoo catfish. Calwhiz. (Via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cichlids from Lake Tanganyika have learned to coexist with cuckoo catfish

Source:
Zimmermann, H., R. Blažek, M. Polačik & M. Reichard, 2022. Individual experience as a key to success for the cuckoo catfish brood parasitism. Nature Communications 13: 1723. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-29417-y

Flower opener

Without flying fox no fruits on Dillenia tree

Flowers of Dillenia biflora have to be openend by a flying fox

The flowers of the tree Dillenia biflora cannot open on their own. That means that the pollinator, a flying fox, has an extra job to do, Sophie Petit and colleagues write.

The relationship between a plant and its pollinators can be special, and the tree Dillenia biflora may have one of the most remarkable. Its peculiar flowers cannot open. Their petals are fused and form a globose corolla, a lid that covers the anthers and stigma.

Dozens of Dillenia species exist that are pollinated by bees that come to collect pollen; these species do not offer them nectar. So, it was a mystery what happens in Dillenia biflora with its permanently closed flowers and inaccessible anthers. There must be pollinators, because the tree produces fruits with seeds and the flowers cannot self-pollinate. Sophie Petit and colleagues wondered: who are the pollinators, and how do they do it?

Long teeth

Flower of Dillenia biflora is tightly closedThe flowers produce scent, are pale-coloured, large and stout and last only one night. People had noticed large bats, or flying foxes, near the trees at night, and pollen was found in flying fox droppings. These findings suggested that these animals play a role in pollination. On the floor, corollas can be found with four tiny holes.

To find out what happens, the researchers placed video cameras near trees at night, when flying foxes are active. They conducted their research on Fiji’s two largest islands, Vanua Levu and Viti Levu, where Dillenia biflora grows in rainforests.

The footage was clear. Trees are visited at night by the Fijian blossom bat Notopteris macdonaldi, which roosts during the day in large groups in caves. The animals grasp the lid of a flower with their four long canines, pull it away and drop it. Hundreds of anthers and a stigma then are accessible.

Mutual dependence

A flying fox has good reason to do the job: unlike those of related species, the flowers of Dillenia biflora turn out to contain a copious amount of nectar. While the animal is drinking, its snout gets covered with pollen, part of which ends up on the stigma of the next flower it visits. That flower is then pollinated and will form seeds.

It is beneficial for a flower to remain closed. The contents then are safe from rain, from insects that feed on them, and from moths and geckos that sip nectar without pollinating the flowers.

The researchers suspect that more Dillenia species have a similar exclusive relationship with flying foxes, because more species exist with flowers that do not open. They also think there are more bat species that open the flowers and enjoy the hidden food source, such as the Pacific flying fox, Pteropus tonganus.

These trees are completely reliant on nectar-feeding bats that remove the corollas: without their visit, the flowers are aborted and don’t reproduce. Conversely, nectar is the main food source for these flying foxes. That has implications for nature conservation. Many Dillenia species are threatened, and to conserve them, it is necessary that the bats do well. In turn, the flying fox Notopteris macdonaldi is a vulnerable species, and its conservation requires that the trees do not disappear.

Willy van Strien

Photos:
Large: The Pacific flying fox Pteropus tonganus also possibly opens Dillenia flowers; it feeds on fruits, pollen and nectar. Paul Asman, Jill Lenoble (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0)
Small: Labeled flower of Dillenia biflora. © Sophie Petit

Source:
Sophie Petit, S., A.T. Scanlon, A. Naikatini, T. Pukala & R. Schumann, 2022. A novel bat pollination system involving obligate flower corolla removal has implications for global Dillenia conservation. PLoS ONE 17: e0262985. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0262985

Valves closed

Blue mussels learn to avoid parasites

blue mussels close their shells when parasites are around

Blue mussels adapt their behaviour when parasitic larvae are nearby, according to research by Christian Selbach and colleagues.

During food intake, blue mussels, Mytilus edulis, run a risk. The bivalve molluscs feed by filtering water. It enters through an inlet and flows over gills, which not only take oxygen from the water, but also food particles, mainly plankton. These particles get stuck on a mucous layer and are transported to the stomach. The water exits through an outflow opening.

With the inflow of water, mussels may ingest larvae of a harmful parasite.

Mussels that encountered the parasite before, have learned to be more careful. If they notice the presence of parasites in the water, they close their valves and stop filtering to avoid further infection, Christian Selbach and colleagues show.

Intermediate host

The parasite, the fluke (or trematode) Himasthla elongata, has a complicated life cycle in which mussels are indispensable. The cycle starts in a bird that lives near or at sea, such as an oystercatcher, common eider, or scoter; in these animals, adult parasites thrive. They mate and produce eggs that end up in the water with the bird’s faeces. The eggs hatch and the larvae, so-called miracidia, are eaten by common periwinkles; the small snails are the first intermediate host.

In the snails, the parasites develop into the next larval stage, the cercariae, which also end up in the seawater. These are the larvae that infect filtering mussels, which are the second intermediate host. Mussels live in the tidal zone, near the coast, where they can form large shell reefs.

After ingestion by mussels, the parasitic larvae form cysts, a resting stage. Infected mussels grow poorly and are vulnerable to predation by oystercatcher, eider or scoter. And that completes the circle: those birds are the primary host. Once a bird has eaten infected mussels, the parasites mature, and the story starts all over again.

Shut off

If infective larvae are present in the water, mussels cannot help ingesting them when filtering. The only thing they can do to avoid infection is to stop taking in water. But that has a price, because it also means that they cannot take in oxygen and food.

Yet they stop, according to Selbach’s experiments in which he exposed mussels to infective larvae. But they have to learn it.

Mussels that have no previous experience with the parasites go on filtering when they are exposed to larvae. But mussels that met the parasite before and got infected, now shut themselves off. They reduce filtration activity and close the valves with the adductor muscles, which costs energy. But apparently, it would be worse to ingest another dose of parasitic larvae.

Now, it would be interesting to find out how the mussels notice that there are infective larvae around; that is still unclear.

Willy van Strien

Photo: blue mussel. Inductiveload (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Source:
Selbach, C., L. Marchant & K.N. Mouritsen, 2022. Mussel memory: can bivalves learn to fear parasites? Royal Society Open Science 9: 211774. Doi: 10.1098/rsos.211774

Flying saucers

Dance fly female advertises quality by inflating her body

Feamle long-tailed dance fly advertises quality by making herself bigger

Shaped like flying saucers, long-tailed dance fly females seek the attention of males. Their wide shape indicates their quality, Jessica Browne and colleagues write.

Females of the long-tailed dance fly (Rhamphomyia longicauda), which lives in North America, possess ornaments that make them attractive to males. They have sacs on either side of their abdomen and feathery black scales on their legs. By inflating the sacs and wrapping the legs along them while flying, they become laterally expanded. In this way, they show their quality, Jessica Browne and colleagues argue.

Sex roles reversed

In most animal species, females are choosy and males try to impress them by showing off. But in long-tailed dance flies, it is just the other way around: the males are choosy, the females try to seduce them to mate.

The reason is that females are unable to gather their food on their own. They need food to produce eggs, but cannot hunt for the smaller insects on which they live. That is why they have to to be provisioned by males. A male intending to mate brings a prey as a nuptial gift. Females mate frequently, because every mating yields a meal. But males have to catch prey first. That is hard for them, and a male that has gone to all that trouble will offer his gift only to a female that deserves it.

Silhouette

In order to seduce males, females gather in a lek. At dawn or dusk they form a swarm of dozens of flies in a clearing in the forest and ‘dance’ about half a meter above ground level. Males that have captured a prey will approach such swarm from below and see the females silhouetted against the dimly lit sky. Upon detection of an attractive female, a male will hover just below her. She doesn’t miss the chance and immediately drops on him. Together they leave the swarm to mate. She stores his sperm to fertilize eggs with later.

Males prefer large females. To be attractive, females inflate their sacs, lift their legs and wrap them along the laterally expanded sacs, so that their silhouette becomes much wider. They look like flying saucers. The wider a female is, the greater her chance of being chosen.

But what exactly does a large silhouette signify? Why is it beneficial for males to choose such inflated female?

Magnified difference

The higher the quality of a long-tailed dance fly female is, the wider she can make herself, as Browne and colleagues show. A dance fly begins its life as a larva. After pupation, an adult fly emerges with dimensions that are fixed; also the size of the sacs and the scales on the legs of females is fixed. Probably, the size of an adult fly is an indication of quality and a result of how good conditions were during its larval stage. Now, it turns out that the larger a female is, the larger her expandable sacs and leg scales are in proportion. Because large females can make themselves relatively wider, the differences in quality that exist between females are magnified.

Males preferring inflated females are choosing quality.

Paternity not guaranteed

Their choice is a good one, because a wide female potentially produces many eggs. And because she is attractive, she will be chosen frequently and fed many meals, so she will be able to indeed develop those eggs. She also has a good chance of surviving long enough.

But a male that chooses an attractive female can only hope that he will sire some of that progeny. If he is the first to mate her, she will use his nuptial gift to initiate egg development, but by the time she is going to lay them, she has stored sperm from many more males and his chances are small. A male probably has the best chance to sire much offspring if he is the last to mate with her before she starts laying eggs, when they are almost mature.

But in what state of development the eggs of an attractive female are, a male cannot infer from her size. He must be choosy, but he must also be lucky.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Female Rhamphomyia longicauda with inflated sacs. ©Heather Proctor

Sources:
Browne, J.H. & D.T. Gwynne, 2022. Deceived, but not betrayed: static allometry suggests female ornaments in the long‑tailed dance fly (Rhamphomyia longicauda) exaggerate condition to males. Evolutionary Ecology, online Jan. 7. Doi: 10.1007/s10682-021-10148-3
Murray, R.L., J. Wheeler, D.T. Gwynne & L.F. Bussière, 2018. Sexual selection on multiple female ornaments in dance flies. Proceedings of the Royal Society. B 285: 20181525. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.1525
Funk, D.H. & D.W. Tallamy, 2000. Courtship role reversal and deceptive signals in the long-tailed dance fly, Rhamphomyia longicauda. Animal Behaviour 59: 411-421. Doi: 10.1006/anbe.1999.1310

Content with second place

European pied flycatcher may prefer to be a concubine

Female pied flycatcher may become secondary mate of a male

A high quality male is so desirable that a female pied flycatcher may be willing to become his secondary mate – as long as it is not too hard to take care of the young without his assistance, Simone Santoro and colleagues write.

Like most passerine birds, the European pied flycatcher (Fidecula hypoleuca) is mainly socially monogamous. But some males have a secondary female. This concubine gets little help from him when raising the young, but in good years, when food is abundant, that may not be a major problem, Simone Santoro and colleagues argue.

Short breeding season

The males are the first to return from the wintering area in Africa, mid-April. They look for a suitable nest hole, which can be a tree cavity or nest box, and defend a small territory around it. Once a male occupies a good place, he tries to attract a female to breed with. Females visit a number of males before making their choice.

A couple is then busy for about five weeks. She lays five or six eggs and starts breeding when the clutch is complete. Both parents feed the young until they fledge, and dad defends the family. The breeding season covers the months of May and June; only one clutch can be raised in this period. But some males want more.

Good genetic quality

To get more, an ambitious male will have to occupy a second nest site and attract another mate. If successful, he will have to divide his paternal efforts over two nests. The research group, which works in Spain, had already shown how things go.

Males that succeed in starting a second nest are birds that have arrived and started breeding early, and that are able to defend two nests against rivals. These are strong males: of high genetic quality and in good condition. Such male stays with his first mate during the week that she is laying eggs. When she starts incubating, he tries to seduce to a second female. Usually, a second nest is located close to the first one.

When the young hatch in the first nest, he goes there to help feeding them. The primary female gets his full attention. Only when that first nest has fledged does he offer his services to the second nest.

So, the secondary female is worse off, as she has to feed the kids on her own for a while: that is hard work and she will see fewer young fledge. But, on the other hand, these young inherit a good genetic quality from their father. That is why a female may prefer to be the secondary mate of a high quality male rather than the only mate of a low quality male.

Fat and lean years

Particularly later in the season – when desirable single males are not available anymore -the choice to become a secondary female can turn out fairly well, because the time interval between father’s first and second brood will be larger and he will start helping on the second nest earlier.

Now, the researchers show that the availability of food also matters.

Because secondary females have to work harder than females in a monogamous relationship, their chance of survival is lower. (That is also true for primary females. Apparently, the situation is not ideal for them either, but it isn’t their choice.)

However, the lower survival rate of secondary females is an average over years; the researchers followed the birds for 26 seasons. The survival rate varies from one year to the next. In good years, a secondary female has less difficulty raising her young and her chance to survive is almost as high as that of a female in a monogamous relationship. To assess whether a year was good or bad, the researchers considerd the percentage of young that survived and fledged. A good year probably is a year in which food is abundant. In such year, a female can more easily accept a secondary position.

And sometimes. she does, as it turns out: in fat years it is more common for a male to have two families than in lean years. But even then, monogamous relationships remain the majority.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Caroline Legg (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

Sources:
Santoro, S., P. Fernández‑Díaz, D. Canal, C. Camacho, L.Z. Garamszegi, J, Martínez‑Padilla & J. Potti, 2022. High frequency of social polygyny reveals little costs for females in a songbird. Scientific Reports 12: 277. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-04423-0
Canal, D., L. Schlicht, J. Manzano, C. Camacho & J. Potti, 2020. Socio-ecological factors shape the opportunity for polygyny in a migratory songbird. Behavioral Ecology 31: 598–609. Doi: 10.1093/beheco/arz220

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