How I learned to respect the peahen

Written for the Los Angeles Arboretum.

Meep meep? More like “Honk honk!”

Arboretum regulars will no doubt recognize the call of a startled peahen, but you may not be aware of the clever ways they use it. Not that they try to boast or taunt the enemy, necessarily, but I’m starting to think that the birds at the Arboretum owe a lot to their version of the Road Runner’s call.

How do I know? Some background is in order here: I’m the tall blond woman who has been hanging around the Arboretum morning and night for the past few years, overdressed and hauling a camera, a pair of binoculars, some peanuts and, if I was lucky, a peacock. Working at the park each spring, I often wished I had more time to chat with visitors. But I was preoccupied, and the life of an ornithologist can sometimes feel like that of Wile E. Coyote on a bad day.

For the past four years, I’ve been chasing peafowl across the continent – from Arcadia in February to Winnipeg, Toronto and New York in May and June. Incidentally, the Bronx Zoo is the only place in North America that even comes close to the Arboretum in sheer number of peafowl. Three years into my PhD in biology, and I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours watching these birds.

You may be wondering what got me into this mess.

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Elections are like peacocks

Both are loud, and both cause colourful flashy things to pop up on lawns everywhere. And much like elections, the peacock’s train is a costly endeavour. The species might be better off in terms of survival and abundance if they could just do away with those feathers. In terms of sheer waste, they remind me of the Green party pamphlets in our apartment building entrance way. They were stuffed blindly into all of the available mailboxes – which happen to be for street level businesses on our downtown block, not residents. Nice.

Peacocks and elections are both supposed to experience strong positive feedback effects. In politics, momentum can lead to rapid climbs in popularity. Sexual selection can be similar: as Ronald A. Fisher pointed out, exaggerated male traits can potentially evolve through a process of positive feedback. If enough females prefer the particular male trait initially, and the next generation inherits both the female preference and the exaggerated male trait, it can kick-start a runaway process of sexual selection to extremes.

Despite claims to the contrary, we don’t actually know whether Fisher’s runaway process contributed to peacock evolution. But it may be reasonable to assume that it played at least some role: positive feedback should set up easily so long as mate choice is not very costly for females2.

Thinking about peacocks gave me an insight that may have cured my allergy to all things political, at least temporarily. Not that I don’t care about the election – I do – but I can’t get over my frustration at the kinds of things that count as good arguments in the political sphere. Here’s an example: I’d like to learn more about the Green party, but they seem to support a whole lot of pseudoscientific nonsense. Apparently their health care platform includes homeopathy and various other forms of alternative medical quackery. How can we be sure they won’t apply the same less-than-rational approach to the environment? If only there could be “one true party”, I thought after the leaders’ debate – a notion that, briefly, made me wonder whether I might be a closet fascist.

This doubt came up again when I was reading an article in this week’s Nature about the effect of social media on research priorities. It focused on the controversial and totally unproven “liberation procedure” for MS – extremely popular in Canada but, oddly enough, nowhere else1. The article mentioned that Michael Ignatieff has stated his support for clinical trials of the treatment, despite the recommendation by a panel of CIHR experts that a clinical trial would be premature without further evidence from observational studies1. The authors of the Nature article – a group of doctors and medical researchers in Canada – ended up somewhere close to Ignatieff’s position nonetheless. They concluded that the benefits of a full-blown experimental trial might outweigh the costs if thousands of social media-influenced patients are travelling outside of the country to receive private treatment anyway, “exposing themselves to the risks and costs”1. In other words, popularity is an important – and rational – consideration when it comes to medical science.

I have two things to offer for election day. First, there is a good summary of where the major parties stand on science and research funding here. Some are a lot more rational than others.

On to the peacocks. Democratic elections, like sexually selected traits, are communal illusions. Money is another example. The more you accept them, the more you believe in them, the better they work.


  1. Chafe, R. et al. 2011. Nature 472: 410-411.
  2. Lande, R. 1981. PNAS 78: 3721-3725.

Furious about eyespots

I think I flubbed an interview this week. My supervisor Bob and I just published a paper that is getting some press, because it addresses a recent controversy about the peacock’s train1. Eager for the interview with Nature News, I wasn’t exactly prepared with good lines for the reporter to go on – and I wonder if that’s why he had to pump up our story as a “furious debate”2.

In truth, most of the “debate” played out in a flurry of news articles back in 2008. That was when Mariko Takahashi and her colleagues in Tokyo and Kanagawa published the fruits of their exhaustive 7-year study of the peafowl at the Izu Cactus Park in Shizuoka, Japan3. I’ve never met Takahashi, although I did meet her supervisor and one other player in this story at a conference back then, and all were quite friendly. But the title of Takahashi’s 2008 paper, “Peahens do not prefer peacocks with more elaborate trains” was a direct jab at an earlier one, “Peahens prefer peacocks with more elaborate trains”, by Marion Petrie in the UK4. Takahashi and her coauthors had the difficult task of proving a negative – and they did it pretty convincingly, with the aid of a much more extensive data set than anyone had gathered before with this species. The upshot? For a peacock in Japan, having a bigger train ornament doesn’t necessarily win you any favours with the ladies.

Bigger in terms of the number of eyespots visible in the ornament during courtship, that is; males have about 150 on average, each on the end of a single feather. The results of the Japanese study were in direct contradiction to Marion Petrie’s earlier work as well as some recent studies of peafowl in France suggesting that eyespot number is often correlated with male mating success4,5. What’s more, in the 1990s Petrie had confirmed the causal effect of eyespots by showing that you could alter a male’s fate just by removing about 20 of them6.

Peacock in flight

Taken at the Los Angeles Arboretum in 2009. Photo by Roslyn Dakin.

The Japanese team proposed a rather bold new hypothesis. Perhaps the cumbersome, ridiculous train ornament is obsolete – a relic of sexual selection past, no longer used by females in quite the same way as it was when it first evolved3.

This was taken up with gusto by the news media. Check out the headlines: “Peacock feathers: That’s so last year”, “Have peacock tails lost their sexual allure?”, “Peacock feathers fail to impress the ladies”. Amusingly, this last article was also published with the title, “Female peacocks not impressed by male feathers” by Discovery News7-10. Males could probably be forgiven for striking out with those elusive female peacocks, since they don’t actually exist.

Headlines aside, Takahashi’s interpretation is somewhat of a concern. Here’s why: creationists picked up on this story too11.

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Which animal would use Facebook most, if it could?

My poll in class last week was a popular one – a fact that I couldn’t properly enjoy, since Charlie came up with it for me in a fit of brain-dead incapacity. Charlie’s Facebook question elicited chirps of excitement, compliments and even a few drawings on the response sheets. Here are the results, ranked by favour among the students:

  • Chimpanzees: So they have opposable thumbs, and can “use the spacebar” (is this actually important in Facebook?). A number of students gave bonobos special mention, since they would probably want to keep track of all their casual sexual relationships.
  • Dolphins: Highly intelligent, social, and they might also be interested in monitoring multiple sexual conquests. Dolphins and migratory whales could use Facebook to keep in touch while roaming widely over the oceans – the long-distance relationships of the animal kingdom. For some reason, students in different tutorial groups who chose dolphins were inspired to draw them for me as well. Coincidence?
  • Parrots and other birds: Especially in species that have high levels of extra-pair paternity, birds could use Facebook as a form of mate-guarding to keep tabs on their social partner1,2. There are other reasons to think that songbirds might easily make the transition to internet gossip. Female black-capped chickadees, for instance, eavesdrop on the outcome of song contests between rival males, and use this information when deciding on a mate3.
  • Eusocial animals: Like ants or naked mole rats (the only known eusocial mammal). A couple of students also mentioned highly social meerkats, since living in groups of 10-40 individuals would require them to keep track of a lot of social information.
  • Other yappy follower-types: hyenas, seals, lemmings, and Yorkshire terriers all got a mention.

Charlie and I discussed it over dinner at the Iron Duke. My first thought went to ants, for their extreme group lifestyle. The problem is that ants don’t really care about what other ants do or think about each other. Insect sociality is all about the greater good: worker ants toil away for the colony despite having no hope of reproducing on their own. Ok, so maybe the internet isn’t conducive to real reproduction either, but ants just don’t have the ego required. Plus, as one clever student pointed out, a colony of eusocial animals are all very close genetic relatives of one another – and she tends to block family members from Facebook.

Charlie mentioned peacocks for spending so much time on courtship and preening, but I rejected that one too.

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Not when cupid strikes

Raphael's The Triumph of Galatea

“Not when cupid strikes.”

That was Christine Drea’s response at the Animal Behavior meeting last summer. She had just given a talk on her latest study, showing the dramatic effects of hormonal contraception on the way lemurs communicate with the opposite sex1. I was asking her what advice she gives to women about birth control. On the 50th anniversary of the Pill, scientists like Drea were adding to the evidence that we might want to think twice about our widespread use of these drugs. The lemur research suggests that hormonal contraception could be replacing one “problem that has no name” – Betty Friedan’s idea of the dissatisfaction felt by modern women – with another2.

Like many primates, ring-tailed lemurs have a complicated system of signaling to one another through scent. Males are able to detect the sex, fertility and even the identity of a particular female by smell alone3. At first glance, the connection to humans might seem far-fetched, since our noses are pretty poor compared to other mammals. But we are relatively well-endowed when it comes to scent production: humans have more scent glands on the surface of our skin than any other primate4.

We also have some surprising olfactory abilities lurking beneath the surface. The classic example is the T-shirt test. In the 1990s, researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland gave a group of men T-shirts to take home, with instructions to sleep and sweat in them over the next two nights5. When women were later asked to sort the dirty T-shirts based on pleasantness of smell, they did something surprising. Their rankings came down to genes: the more genetically distinct a man was from a female rater, the more she liked his scent.

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Wherefore the mustache?

Ears, palms, toes, neck, and nose. In that order.

These are the grossest places for humans to have hair, according to Queen’s students. Ok, there were a few others that I didn’t mention. The upper lip, however, did not receive a single vote.

Last fall a number of men in the biology department grew competitive mustaches for “Movember” prostate cancer research fundraising. This required mass beard shaving on the first of November. Martin Mallet, known for his thick coat of fur, emphatic hand gestures and all-around intensity, suddenly transformed into a meek imposter. For the first time Martin had no probing questions for the speaker at the EEB seminar. I can’t help but wonder: if he did, would anyone have noticed?

I started to recognize Martin again when the hair on his upper lip attained visibility. Other men of Movember fared less well. It can’t be a good thing when the people who work in the same office as you don’t even notice your new, mustachioed face.

But what, if anything, is it for? My experience suggests that human facial hair serves as a male status signal. Is this why we evolved mustaches in the first place?

Inca Tern

Why do mustaches evolve? Inca tern, from Wikimedia Commons.

In class the other week we discussed Stephen Jay Gould and the trouble with adaptationism. Gould famously criticized the proliferation of sloppy adaptive reasoning in his 1979 paper “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm1. He took aim at scientists who apply adaptive “story-telling” to nearly anything – from the colour of our skin to the size of our noses – in an unverifiable, unfalsifiable way.

It can be easy to jump on the adaptationist bandwagon, since these stories are often quite plausible. This may have been especially true when “Spandrels” was written, due to the rise of some revolutionary ideas about how to apply evolutionary biology to the study of social behaviour. There was plenty of new research to be done. Of course, many of the people doing this research disagreed with Gould’s characterization2. At its worst, adaptationist thinking might lead to some bad science, especially when it comes to human behaviour (where confounds are especially hard to control). But speculation is a necessary part of the scientific method, and adaptive reasoning can be a good place to start.

It is worth noting that Gould’s paper has been enormously influential. “Spandrels” has been cited well over 3500 times. I’m still waiting on citation number 3 for my Master’s research.

And yet, the response of the research community to the “Spandrels” critique has largely been, “That’s well said, but let’s get back to our field work.”2 In that spirit, consider the mustache. Can we speculate about it in a reasonable way, avoiding the big adaptationist pitfalls?

First of all, is this question worth asking?

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