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Red blond male guppy. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/statico/">Ian Langworth</a>, cc <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en">some rights reserved</a>
Red blond male guppy. Photo: Ian Langworth, cc some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Guppies, Bright and Drab

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If male guppies use bright colors to attract mates, why are there still lots of drab guppies? Bright colors may attract the attention of more than just potential mates. Dr. Curt Stager and Martha Foley discuss the upside and downside of male flash.

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Brightly colored guppies attract mates more easily than drab ones. However, the drab guppies have the advantage when it comes to eluding predators.

According to Dr. Curt Stager, a set of field studies have been done on guppies in their native habitats on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Stager said, “The short version of the story is there’s a cost as well as a benefit to being a colorful male guppy with your big, bright red, flowing tail let’s say. Not only do the girls like you better, but the predators do too. ”

Guppies with flashy tails also behave very differently than drab guppies do. “There’s a real difference, which is apparently why the females are attracted to the pretty colors,” said Stager. “It turns out there are behavior differences too. In the more colorful ones, they tend to be more aggressive. Like if there is a predator, they tend to be more likely to swim up and investigate it.”

This strategy benefits the guppies because it deters the predator. The colorful guppies are more bold and vigorous than their plainer counterparts, and they also run away more quickly when a predator decides they’re actually going to attack. Stager said, “They probably have better genetic quality, and the females want that in a mate so their kids can have better genes.”

This system of cost and benefit is seen in a variety of species. According to Stager, there was a study done in Canada that examined female paper wasps. The insects had unique dark splotches on their faces that serve to identify them as individuals. The pattern of the splotches is also indicative of the social dominance of the animal. The researchers painted high-status markings onto low-status wasps.

“They’d have these encounters like normal and another wasp would look at them thinking they’re high status because of the kind of facial marks, and then they’d do their little aggression things and find out they were actually wimps wearing a fake advertisement as a high status insect,” said Stager. “And then they would really attack them a lot more aggressively, and basically punish them for cheating. Which then is kind of a neat thing to have found out because it explains why cheating isn’t more common, at least in social animals like this.”

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