Thursday, October 8, 2009

Evolutionary Biology - Stereotyping Birds

Scientists are using birds to create a new stereotype - loser female birds prefer loser male birds. How interesting! They're like ugly people who know that they shouldn't try to date the popular kids. (That's sarcasm, if it's not obvious)

A study recently came out about Zebra finches. You can read about it here and here. First assumption: chicks raised in a large brood are low quality because they have to compete for limited resources. Chicks raised in a small brood are high quality. So get this, they claim that the low-quality chicks differ from the high-quality chicks in metabolism, longevity, and attractiveness. In addition, low-quality male zebra finches have a low-quality song. What?!

They trained the female zebra finches to press a button to activate a male zebra finch song. They could hear either a high-quality song or a low-quality song. The low-quality females preferred the low-quality song. In addition, when a low-quality female was paired with a low-quality male, they produced eggs faster than mixing high-quality and low-quality birds. So you see? Loser females know to stick to their own kind.

The New Scientist article has the most ridiculous statement. "When a low-quality female did mate with a high-quality partner, her eggs were larger. The authors reckon this is because the female knows she is doing better than she deserves and will invest more nutrients into the eggs she lays." WHAT?! So these loser females are usually smart enough to stay with their own kind, but IF she's lucky enough to mate with the captain of the football team, she will take care of herself for the sake of her high-quality offspring? That is absurd.

Perhaps this explains why the low-quality pairs produced eggs faster. Larger eggs would take longer to produce, no?

The leaps required to reach these conclusions are enormous. The scientists were way too eager to come up with a conclusion that could be applied to humans. To be fair, it's possible that the journalists warped the findings to make a more interesting story. Either way, I'm very annoyed that this story is receiving so much attention.


  1. Your whole wrap-up made me laugh. It sounded like a fake study!

    The parrot at the rescue where I volunteer that received the most attention from other parrots would certainly disagree with the conclusions (though I know one anecdotal exception means nothing).

    She was a B&G macaw in her 20s and one of the homeliest parrots I have ever seen. She had wonky eyes, major feather loss, arthritic feet. I mean, you just felt pity for her when you looked at her.

    However, there were at least 4 parrots I can think of that fell in love with her, and my H did too (he talks about her every day referencing the regret he feels for not adopting her).

    Though maybe those parrots and my H are considered low-quality mates :)

    In any case, sorry for the rambly comment and thanks for the laughs!

  2. I just get so frustrated with modern research, especially evolutionary biology. To get published, you have to discover something new. "New" means either novel or contrary to the assumptions. Novel is pretty hard these days, especially when you're stuck in a lab. So everyone tries to disprove theories, which means that you can find evidence to support any opinion. Why bother discussing things anymore when researchers are being so disingenuous.

    I bet your experience at the rescue is far more experience than these "scientists" ever had.


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