Flowers, Not Flirting, Make Sexes Differ

By Milius, S. | Science News, July 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

Flowers, Not Flirting, Make Sexes Differ


Milius, S., Science News


Let's not get so obsessed with attracting the opposite sex, cautions a hummingbird research team.

Sex appeal may seem like all that makes the world go round, especially to anyone reading recent scientific studies about why males look different from females, remarks Ethan J. Temeles of Amherst (Mass.) College.

Evolutionary pressure to charm and fight for a mate, or sexual selection, is usually easier to test for than natural selection, or the bottom-line pressure for survival, says Temeles. Yet he and his colleagues have found a Caribbean island where they say they can distinguish between the two.

Among purple-throated caribs, Eulampis jugularis, the largest hummingbird on St. Lucia, it's food and not flirtation that's driven males and females to develop bills in his-and-hers models, the researchers argue.

"This is the first really unambiguous example of ecology playing a role in the morphological differences between the sexes," Temeles says.

To be fair, he points out, biologists never claimed sexual selection explained all gender differences. Darwin himself proposed that specialized diets led to bill differences in a New Zealand bird, the huia. Males' stubby bills allowed them to drill into trees for insects, while the females' long, curved bills pried insects out of crevices. Verifying Darwin's theory has been difficult since the bird went extinct more than a century ago.

Evidence has been thin to verify any claim of ecological causes for sex differences. Some studies have suggested that food preferences may foster gender-related size differences in snakes, weasels, and predatory birds. Based on anatomical studies, scientists have argued that in certain mosquitoes, male mouth parts look ideal for sipping nectar while the females' counterparts look better for sucking blood. …

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