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Dr Liam Dougherty
University of Liverpool
Early Career Fellowship

Understanding the link between animal mate choice and the environment

Zebra finch couple (Taeniopygia guttata), Adobe Stock.

Choosing the right mate is hugely important for all animal species; picking a poor mate could mean your offspring don’t receive enough food during infanthood, or inherit poor genes which make them vulnerable to disease. Indeed, some form of mate choice has been observed in the vast majority of animal groups, from humans and other mammals to lowly cockroaches and worms. However, it is not only choosing the best mate that is important: animals (and humans) must also decide how much they prefer Mr or Mrs Right over other, less attractive options. For example: imagine that you find Olympic gold medallists attractive. Should you decide to only ever date gold medallists, even if the chances of you finding one in the general population are very low? Or should you settle for silver and bronze medallists as well? Importantly, this decision should depend in part on the mating environment; for example, it’s easier to be choosy when there are lots of potential mates available.

This decision, of how choosy to be at any given moment, is one that animals have to make often in the wild. We know this because animals often change how choosy they are in response to changes in the environment. However, what isn’t clear is which environmental factors most strongly influence mate choice across species, and there are a lot of potential factors to choose from. I am investigating this question using two approaches. First, I am surveying the scientific literature to find studies that test for changes in animal choosiness in response to changes in the environment. I will use a meta-analysis approach to unify this data into a single statistical analysis, in order to determine which conditions favour being choosy across the animal kingdom. Second, I am examining whether choosiness evolves in response to changes in the environment over multiple generations, using meal moth populations that have been reared under controlled conditions for 140 generations.  

With this project I intend to put animal mate choice back into the real world. Understanding how the environment influences choosiness, and the extent to which mating behaviour is flexible, will allow us to better predict animal mating behaviour in the natural environment, which is highly variable both in time and space. It will also help to explain the conditions favouring the evolution of mate choice in the first place. Finally, it will also help us to predict how natural populations will respond and adapt to the (human-induced) environmental change we are now seeing around the world.

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