There are a lot of studies and news articles out there that I would love to blog about but, frankly, I just don’t have the time. Thankfully, usually someone else did have the time to write about it. So, I’ve decided that once a week I will post a list and short comment about different things I’ve seen on the interwebs that I thought were worth sharing.
This week: Choosy chickens, acts of government that may end human life, the link between masturbation and condom use, killer worm sperm, selfish woodpeckers, and loud lady bonobos.
Let me know if I’ve missed something crucial!
- Hens eject sperm from males as a way of controlling paternity. This is actually a fairly common phenomenon in animals. In hens, it appears that males can force females into matings, so the only way females can take control of who becomes their baby daddy is by getting rid of sperm from sub-par males. A similar phenomenon happens in fruit flies. Females sometimes decide after the fact that, eh, I don’t really want that guy to be the father of my tons of larvae. I saw a video of this at a talk once. I can’t find it online, so I’ll describe it to you. The female had mated, got buyer’s remorse, and started pulling the ejaculate out of her. She used her two hind-most legs, curled up, and just literally pulled the whole ball of goop out. Beats Plan B. Speaking of which…
- A new federal guideline will require all insurance companies to provide free birth control. Some GOP congress members and other conservative bigwigs have, to put it mildly, issues with this. Sandy Rios of the Family PAC has equated covering birth control to covering manicures and pedicures. She even goes on to say that maybe women should just have babies if they’re going to be such whores (I paraphrased a little bit there). Rep. Steve King of Iowa took it up a notch by suggesting that giving women birth control for free will lead to the extinction of the human race.
While we’re on the subject of safe sex: a recent study found a link between masturbation and condom usage among teenage boys. Basically, boys who had masturbated in the last year were more likely to use a condom during their last sexual encounter than were boys who didn’t masturbate. The reason for this link is not known, and that will require different studies. Not surprisingly, three-quarters of boys said they masturbated. The study suggests that doctors and sex-ed teachers may want to actually start to address the often awkward and taboo topic of masturbation.
And now, the ultimate birth control, from a worm: a sperm-delivered toxin that kills embryos. The toxin only kills the little pre-worms if they don’t carry the toxin gene’s next-door neighbor, the antidote gene. This kind of paternal-effect selfish gene is the first of its kind. And, just because I love C. elegans sperm, I thought I would share that love with you. The picture to the right shows some worm sperm cells. The little knobby bits are called the “pseudopod”. (Click on the picture to go to a website for the Sam Ward lab at my Alma Mater to learn even more about worm sperm!)
Unlike the little swimmy guys you usually picture when you think about sperm (which is, hopefully, not as often as I do), worm sperm actually crawl toward the egg. Most worms are hermaphrodites, but when the rare male shows up on the scene, a hermaphrodite is happy to mate with him (hermaphrodites have a limited supply of sperm, but not eggs. Getting more sperm is a total win). Want to see worms mating? Of course you do. That’s why I put a video of that here for you.
But what about when you actually do want to have babies? New research from Walter Koeing and colleagues has discovered something surprising about acorn woodpeckers. These birds have cooperative breeding, meaning that members of the social group will help raise the young of other birds. One way they help is by bringing food. But, it turns out that they only do this in times of plenty. You can find the full article on the Koenig lab website. Out of laziness on my part (and in case you don’t want to read the research article), I’ll just copy and paste the press release text here:
Acorn woodpeckers are cooperative breeders, meaning adult birds often join breeding groups and help raise young that are not their own. Scientists have long thought that communal breeding may have evolved to help birds deal with food shortages and other difficult times. But a study by researchers from Cornell and Gonzaga shows that for acorn woodpeckers, the opposite seems to be true: Help contributed by other family members is beneficial only when the acorn crop is large. “Apparently when the crop is poor, the additional food that helpers provide to nestlings doesn’t make up for the extra resources those helpers are using,” said Walter Koenig, the study’s lead author. “Whereas when the acorn crop is good, their help is enough to significantly increase both the survivorship of the other birds in the group and the number of young the group can fledge. At least in acorn woodpeckers, living together in a family only confers benefits when food is plentiful.”
When times get tough, the woodpeckers get greedy.
And finally, the act of making whoopie itself. Recently, I was listening to a podcast episode of ‘Wait, wait, don’t tell me,’ and learned that Bill Clinton once had a very one-sided, long-winded conversation about bonobo chimp sex with some of his aides. My heart went out to Mr. Clinton, and I wanted to give him more material for such a conversation, and maybe help the other people in the room contribute to this academic endeavor.
A recent article was published that showed the loud calls female bonobos make during sex (with males or females) are used as social cues. Females shout out for reasons that have nothing to do with reproduction. The loudness of the calls was correlated with the social rank of their partner. Maybe they’re advertising how cool they are, that this high-ranking male or female would want to bump uglies with them.