Understanding Ornamentation

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Understanding Ornamentation


Why do some animals have extravagant, showy ornaments--think elk and deer antlers, peacock feathers and horns on dung beetles--that can be a liability to survival? Charles Darwin couldn't figure it out, but now a Northwestern University research team has a possible explanation for this puzzling phenomenon of evolution.

The researchers developed a mathematical model that made a surprising prediction: In animals with ornamentation, males will evolve out of the tension between natural selection and sexual selection into two distinct subspecies, one with flashy, "costly" ornaments for attracting mates and one with subdued, "low-cost" ornaments.

"Ornamentation does persist in nature, and our quantitative model reveals that a species can split into two subspecies as a result of the ornamentation battle that occurs over time," said Daniel M. Abrams, an associate professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics in the McCormick School of Engineering.

Evidence from nature agrees. The researchers studied available data on animal ornaments, such as deer antlers, peacock feathers, the brightness of certain fish, and the tail length of some birds, from 15 species. …

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