Saturday, March 13, 2010

Evolving from Promiscuity to Monogamy

New research has revealed how the process of evolution can result in sexually promiscuous animals undergoing adaptation for monogamy.

Reproduction is an expensive endeavor. Tremendous time and resources are invested in seeking-out healthy partners, in consummating relationships, and in rearing the resultant offspring. Luckily, evolution has resulted in life being programmed to strive for resource efficiency; to work towards maximum reproductive benefit at minimum personal expense. In regards to pair-bonding between the sexes, this biological imperative for reproductive economy has made promiscuity the rule and monogamy the exception. However, despite the fact that promiscuous mating systems are the prevailing strategy in nature, environmental factors can push typically promiscuous species towards monogamy.

As a case in point, a report published in the April issue of The American Naturalist details how the ‘mimic poison dart frog’ (Ranitomeya imitator) parted ways with promiscuity to adapt a lifestyle as the first scientifically recognized genetically monogamous amphibian.

Like other frog species, poison dart frogs incur a certain amount of risk by laying their eggs in water. Although water is a biological prerequisite for frog survival, ponds, lakes and puddles also house predatory fish and other animals that prey on vulnerable eggs and tadpoles. During its evolutionary past, the menace of predation pushed the mimic poison dart frogs away from larger, riskier ponds to the considerably smaller, but safer, pools held by leaves of large bromeliad plants. Unfortunately, although the tree-top bromeliads decreased the rate of frog young predation, the movement from the big ponds raised a separate issue – nutrient limitation.

The big ponds definitely had more predators; but, they also had substantially more food. In fact, the ponds had so much food that a single frog-parent (in this case the male) was able to handle the tadpoles all by himself – a single parent family arrangement was all that was necessary to raise the next generation. In contrast, the waters held by the bromeliads averaged only about 24 milliliters in volume, far too little to hold ample provisions for a startup tadpole. In order to maintain their newly acquired safe housing, the mimic dart frogs had to adapt a new tactic.

Male mimic dart frogs had previously evolved the capacity to both transport and guard young tadpoles, but having moved to the suburbs, the females needed to help-out with feeding; rearing had become too difficult a task for the males to handle on their own. If they were to ensure the survival of their young, the days of leaving dad to care for the kids were over – monogamy was the best option. Unlike males, female mimic darts have the ability to produce eggs. To do their part, mom frogs adopted a strategy called trophic egg feeding, a practice in which they lay unfertilized eggs in the bromeliad pools for the tadpoles to eat.

An absolutely amazing video of this monogamous behavior was recorded by the BBC during the dissertation work of Jason Brown. Jason was the lead author of the cited paper, and the mimic dart footage was included in the David Attenborough narrated documentary “Life in Cold Blood.”

This is awesome footage:

Brown, J., Morales, V., & Summers, K. (2010). A Key Ecological Trait Drove the Evolution of Biparental Care and Monogamy in an Amphibian The American Naturalist, 175 (4), 436-446 DOI: 10.1086/650727


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