This is the first post! Let me get you up to speed…
Most of my dissertation work so far has been building theoretical computer models that serve as proofs-of-concept for new ideas about evolution. I create imaginary populations of animals and I give them rules to live, reproduce, and pass on their genes by. This platform allows me to probe what sorts of things are possible to evolve, and under what conditions. For example, can the cost of having unattractive or low quality sons drive females to evolve new strategies (like convoluted vaginal tracts) to combat coercive mating attempts from males that they do not prefer? I’ve created a model that suggests that this is indeed the case, and I hope to have the chance to write a bit more about it and its significance soon.
I’m really excited right now because I am working to develop a project that will hopefully ground-truth some of my theoretical ideas related to sexual conflict using observations of animals in the wild.
For years, I have been fascinated by lek-breeding birds. In these systems, males display, often with colorful plumage and spectacular dances, in aggregations (leks) that females visit to choose a mate. Most females agree on which males are most attractive, so relatively few males are successful… ever. Most males will never mate, their entire lives. Males (especially the unsuccessful ones) will be under natural selection to increase their own relative success by interfering with females that visit their neighbors’ courtship displays. However, unchecked disruption would prevent female choice, and lead to a breakdown of lek-based mating. Thus, mechanisms for regulating male courtship disruption must be necessary for a functioning lek, yet the nature of these mechanisms and their evolutionary drivers remain unknown.
To pursue this mystery, I have come here to the lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica to study the social and mating habits of some little birds called Manakins. I’m here to look at a species called the Red-capped Manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis), known in the literature for their low levels of courtship disruption, and known worldwide for their suave “moonwalk” mating dance (shoutout to Dr. Kim Bostwick, former Prum Lab student). In about a month, I will be headed to the Amazonian region of Ecuador to hunt down the Red-capped’s apparently more boisterous and confrontational closest relative, the Golden-headed Manakin (Ceratopipra erythrocephala). I will be looking at the social behaviors of the males and the mating decisions of the females, drawing comparisons between the two species’ social systems to try to gain insight into the evolution of stable leks. That is, if everything goes as planned…
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Stay focused, learn a lot, be safe, have fun!