Less attractive, less picky: How mating is changing in a warmer world

Less attractive, less picky: How mating is changing in a warmer world

Let climate change teach us that looks aren’t everything

climate illustration (Video: Dan Woodger for The Washington Post, Photo: Dan Woodger for The Washington Post/Dan Woodger for The Washington Post)


This article is the first installment of the new Hidden Planet column, which explores the wondrous, unexpected, and sometimes amusing science of our planet and beyond.

Dating and mating have never been hotter – and that’s not always a good thing.

Take the male dragonfly, which tries to impress a lady with striking yellow, red, brown and black wing designs like a fluttering Pablo Picasso. But some men find that looking so attractive in darker pigments isn’t worth the energy in a warming world. Now many are shedding the bling in their wing to stay cool, although that might disappoint the ladies.

Let climate change teach us that looks aren’t everything.

Animals and humans are changing the way they select their mates as greenhouse gas emissions raise global temperatures and warm our world. (Video: Brian Monroe, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

In the animal world, the selection of certain traits has long been the main driver of the evolution of certain sexual species. If a trait, behavior, or dance will help attract or compete for a mate, it will do so even if it isn’t very helpful otherwise. But as our planet warms to unthinkable temperatures, some are being forced to rethink their dating habits.

These adjustments come in many forms. Many animals give up attractive traits, while others retain those traits and find different ways to conserve their energy. Some animals adapt by completely changing the attributes they value in a companion. And although the research is very limited, there is even some evidence to suggest that human mating habits are also changing in a warming world.

Currently, animals are not adapting fast enough to keep up with climate change. But in the long term, changes in sexual selection could be an important part of making certain animal species adapt faster and more effectively to a rapidly warming climate – and this is something that will be critical as climate change could drive up to 1 in 6 animals and plant species to extinction.

“We’re all realizing, ‘Oh, we need to study reproduction in addition to survival if we’re going to understand how organisms are going to respond to climate over the next 20 to 50 years,'” said evolutionary biologist Michael Moore. at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Here are some animals that adapt their mating behavior in hot weather.

I like big phenos and I can’t lie

The male lion with the largest and darkest mane. The male peacock with the longest and most colorful feathers. The single person” Where “Single” competitor with prettier or prettier looks (we’ll get to human mating momentarily).

Typically, many sexual animals find a mate based on observable characteristics, called a phenotype. The animal with larger, flashier or more flamboyant features than its competitors is preferred. These traits are usually concentrated in males, but not always (thanks to my seahorse ladies).

Evolutionary biologists say these eye-catching displays are usually indicators of good genes, which females want to pass on to their offspring. In some animal communities, such as lion prides, the most preferred males will mate with many females, and these traits will be passed on most often.

“The males that can grow these really big ornaments or signals or make really loud calls or beat all the other males, they’re kind of genetically superior,” said Rob Knell, an evolutionary ecologist at Queen’s University. Mary from London. “For good quality males, in highly sexually selected systems, you should see faster adaptation to changing environments.”

But many of these flashy traits are exhausting. For example, large amounts of dark pigmentation in a dragonfly’s wings can heat the insect up to 3.5 degrees (about 2 degrees Celsius). That’s just too much for a dragonfly in today’s climate. The same can be said for stress on a number of species.

“There is certainly evidence that as our climate warms and our environment becomes more stressful in different ways, it becomes more and more difficult for these organisms to produce these traits that are really important for attracting mates and intimidate breeding rivals,” Moore said.

By studying more than 3,000 dragonfly sightings, Moore and his colleagues found that males have now shifted to less pigmentation over the past few decades. During Earth’s warmest years, humans displayed the fewest colors.

“The best evidence we have so far is either that natural selection kills the really ornate males in the warmer years,” said Moore, who is additionally studying how females respond to switching to less colorful males. Or males with lots of coloration “may never even get to places where they engage in these courtship behaviors and where they fight other males for territories.”

But losing the flashy trait isn’t the only option. Craig Packer, who has studied lions for decades, said the animals may retain their ostentatious appearance and choose to develop other traits to balance the extra energy load.

For example, lions with dark, heat-absorbing manes might develop better panting abilities, seek shade more often, or take longer breaks after sex (during which males with lighter manes might melt). on lionesses). Research shows that darker-maned males also drink more water, presumably helping lions cool off.

Dark Manes is basically a man saying to the world, “Look at me, I can handle the heat,” said Packer, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota. “As long as some males are better able to cope, they will always exhibit a bit more conspicuous coloration and females can still use it” to select mates.

Women are less and less demanding

When females feel the (literal) heat, they may appear less picky about who they choose.

Under higher temperatures, Moore said, some women alter what they value or even their number of lovers. Scientists are still studying such adjustments in nature, but they have observed changes in a female’s taste in laboratory studies.

A lab study found that female European corn borers became less selective of a particular male seductive pheromone, or “scent” as researcher Genevieve Kozak called it, at higher temperatures. She felt that females can be stressed in higher temperatures or even struggle to survive, so they “put everything into this mating because it might be their last.”

“They could just become less demanding. They still have preferences but don’t express them,” said Kozak, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

Another laboratory study found that female fruit flies, which usually mate with a single male, increased mate count at higher temperatures. In short, female fruit flies have become more promiscuous – although Saint Louis University researcher Noah Leith prefers to say they are “more receptive to more partners under climate change”.

Leith, who published a review of animals’ mating habits in warmer temperatures, explained that females change their behavior to ensure reproductive success. In warmer temperatures, some males have difficulty producing sperm. Thus, females end up mating with multiple males to ensure that they receive enough viable sperm to fertilize all of their eggs.

When human love lives to warm

So what about people? The researchers say it would likely be impossible to disentangle the effect of climate change on our love lives given many other societal influences. Even so, some research shows that people feel hot and bothered by the heat.

As with fruit flies, human reproductive health can also be affected by high temperatures. One study, which looked at people in the United States, showed that eight to 10 months after days above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the birth rate dropped by 0.4%. The researchers found a slight rebound in births over the next few months, however, suggesting that people can avoid heat-induced birth lulls by shifting the month they have sex.

Separate research has suggested that birth rates were likely lower because higher temperatures decrease reproductive health, not necessarily because people were procreating less on hotter days.

It’s hard to say how human mating will evolve in a warming world because there’s so much more to who we want to date and who to mate with.

“I try to stay out of the human mating systems evolution stuff because people are so weird,” Knell said. “People are low to moderately sexually selected, so these effects won’t be strong in humans anyway. Then we have huge overwhelming influences of things like culture on top of that.

Culturally, climate change may impact one aspect of romantics: online dating. OkCupid data shows that users, especially millennials and Gen Z daters, are increasingly mentioning environmental and climate-related terms on their profiles. Analyzing the profiles of more than 385,000 OkCupid users from August to November this year, daters who said they believe climate change is real received 43% more likes. They also received 28.5% more messages.

This, however, is probably only a problem for humans. Lions probably don’t ask their potential mates for their opinion on global warming.

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