Chapter 12. Sex: Evolutionary, Hormonal, and Neural Bases
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
By CARL ZIMMER The golden lion tamarin, a one-pound primate that lives in Brazil, is a stunningly monogamous creature. A male will typically pair with a female and they will stay close for the rest of their lives, mating only with each other and then working together to care for their young. To biologists, this deeply monogamous way of life — found in 9 percent of mammal species — is puzzling. A seemingly better evolutionary strategy for male mammals would be to spend their time looking for other females with which to mate. “Monogamy is a problem,” said Dieter Lukas of the University of Cambridge in a telephone news conference on Monday. “Why should the male keep to one female?” The evolution of monogamy has inspired many different ideas. “These hypotheses have been suggested for the past 40 years, and there’s been no resolution of the debate,” said Kit Opie of the University College London in an interview. On Monday, Dr. Opie and Dr. Lukas each published a large-scale study of monogamy that they hoped would resolve the debate. But they ended up coming to opposing conclusions, which means the debate over monogamy continues. Dr. Lukas, co-author of a paper in the journal Science with Tim Clutton-Brock of Cambridge, looked at 2,545 species of mammals, tracing their mating evolution from their common ancestor some 170 million years ago. The scientists found that mammals shifted from solitary living to monogamy 61 times over their evolution. They then searched for any factors that these mammals had in common. They concluded that monogamy evolves when females become hostile with one another and live in ranges that do not overlap. When females live this way, they set up so much distance between one another that a single male cannot prevent other males from mating with them. Staying close to one female became a better strategy. Once males began doing so, they sometimes evolved to provide care to their offspring as well. © 2013 The New York Times Company
By Susan Milius When a peacock fans out the iridescent splendor of his train, more than half the time the peahen he’s displaying for isn’t even looking at him. That’s the finding of the first eye-tracking study of birds. In more than 200 short clips recorded by eye-tracking cameras, four peahens spent less than one-third of the time actually looking directly at a displaying peacock, says evolutionary biologist Jessica Yorzinski of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. When peahens did bother to watch the shimmering male, they mostly looked at the lower zone of his train feathers. The feathers’ upper zone of ornaments may intrigue human observers, but big eyespots there garnered less than 5 percent of the female’s time, Yorzinski and her colleagues report July 24 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. These data come from a system that coauthor Jason Babcock of Positive Science, an eye-tracking company in New York City, engineered to fit peahens. Small plastic helmets hold two cameras that send information to a backpack of equipment, which wirelessly transmits information to a computer. One infrared head camera focuses on an eye, tracking pupil movements. A second camera points ahead, giving the broad bird’s-eye view. The rig weighs about 25 grams and takes some getting used to. If a peahen with no experience of helmets gets the full rig, Yorzinski says, “she just droops her head to the ground.” Adding bits of technology gradually, however, let Yorzinski accustom peahens to walking around, and even mating, while cameraed up. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
by Brian Mustanski, Ph.D. There is a lot of interest in the question of if too much sex, sexual desire, masturbation, or viewing of pornography is an addiction like to alcohol or cocaine. In fact, an early version of the new DSM-V manual of mental disorders included a “hypersexuality” diagnosis, but this diagnosis was not included in the finalized version. One tool to study addiction is to look at how the brain responds to those substances or cues of those substances. Until recently, this neuroscience approach had not been used to study hypersexuality. A new study published in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology has tested the brain’s response to sexual stimuli among a group of individuals who identified as having problems controlling their use of online pornography. This new study was published by my colleague (and fellow Indiana University Psychology alumni) Dr. Nicole Prause, who is an Assistant Research Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California- Los Angeles and a Research Scientist at the Mind Research Network. Below are her answers to my questions about this new study. What was the purpose of the study? Some clinicians describe patients who report problems decreasing their sexual behaviors, such as viewing many hours of sexual films online every day, as sexually “addicted” or “hypersexual”. Our study tested whether people who report such problems look like other addicts from their brain responses to sexual images. Studies of drug addictions, such as cocaine, have shown a consistent pattern of brain response to images of the drug of abuse, so we predicted that we should see the same pattern in people who report problems with sex if it was, in fact, an addiction. © Copyright 1991-2013 Sussex Publishers, LLC
An Ontario researcher has discovered that common male crickets talk trash, dance and brag after winning a fight. The discovery has caught the attention of fellow researchers and National Geographic magazine. Lauren Fitzsimmons, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Windsor, discovered the brash behaviour. Fitzsimmons placed pairs of male crickets in a small, clear arena, which always led to fights. The arena included a viewing area for other crickets. She set up three audience situations: a male watching and listening to a fight, a female watching and listening to a fight, or no audience. The combatants bit, pushed and flipped each other around the ring. "After a series of these bouts, one male will kind of sulk away and not interact anymore, while the other will perform a song and dance," Fitzsimmons said. She said the winning cricket would "shake his body back and forth" and chirp in victory. "When we had a male audience watching, the male would produce more of these victory displays," Fitzsimmons said. "The speculation is they can tell there is another individual there, and they’re showing off. "We know females prefer dominant males and males who win fights." © CBC 2013
The lifetime rate of diagnosis of anxiety disorders is higher in women, with 33 percent experiencing an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, as compared with 22 percent of men. Experts believe this difference arises from a combination of hormonal fluctuations, brain chemistry and upbringing: women more often feel responsible for the happiness of others, such as their children or their spouse. © 2013 Scientific American
Oxytocin, the naturally occuring human hormone linked to bonding with a newborn and romantic partner, could also help improve mood after rejection, a laboratory study suggests. When scientists in Montreal gave 100 students either oxytocin or a placebo through a nose spray and then tried to snub them in a conversation, feelings of trust were higher in the hormone group. But the hormone had no effect among those who weren't emotionally charged up by the social rejection of having researchers posing as students disagree, interrupt or ignore them. "Instead of the traditional 'fight or flight' response to social conflict where people get revved up to respond to a challenge or run away from it, oxytocin may promote the 'tend and befriend' response where people reach out to others for support after a stressful event. That can, in turn, strengthen social bonds and may be a healthier way to cope," study author Mark Ellenbogen said in a release. For a decade, researchers have speculated that oxytocin, known as the love hormone, motivates people to seek out social support to respond to challenges and blunt the negative hit of stress. Ellenbogen's team said its study offers the first experimental support of the idea that oxytocin motivates us to strengthen social bonds during times of distress. © CBC 2013
by Helen Fields When a bat moves in for the kill, some moths jiggle their genitals. Researchers made the observation by studying three species of hawk moths—big moths that can hover—in Malaysia. They snared the insects with bright lights, tied tiny leashes around their waists, and let them fly while bat attack sounds played. All three species responded to the noises with ultrasound—which they made by shaking their private parts, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. Males have a structure they use for hanging onto females when they mate; to make the sound, they scrape a patch of large scales on the structure against the very end of their abdomen , letting out two bursts of rapid clicks. Females also make a sound, but the researchers aren't sure how. The scientists don't know exactly what the sounds are for, either. The noise may warn the bats that they're trying to mess with a fast-moving, hard-to-catch piece of prey, or it might jam the bat's ultrasound signals. Either way, the racy display may save their lives. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Should I stay or should I go? Well, how much food do you have? In some organisms, sexual desire is expressed by leaving, that is, by bidding adieu to a delicious pile of food and wandering off in search of a mate. But not just any mate, a mate with food! Lipton et al., at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, use the “leaving assay” to measure male sexual desire. Their subject is the elegant, rod-like worm, Caenorhabditis elegans.* They start by placing males on their preferred food source; then they measure how often males exit in search of mating partners. You can see the trails they leave in the substrate in this video of C. elegans appropriating Harlem art and culture. How do the researchers know “leaving” is a sex behavior? Context. Leaving a food source occurs only in a sexual context, and the leaving assay is being used to tease apart the threads that control the appetites for food and sex. First, a quick lesson in the fascinating sexuality of C. elegans. Males are not interested in other males, but they search intensely for a mating partner of the other sex. Note that I said “other sex” not “opposite sex.” There are no female C. elegans. Males of this species mate enthusiastically with hermaphrodites. Hermaphrodites can, of course, self-fertilize, but sexual unions between males and hermaphrodites are far more fruitful than selfing. For hermaphrodites, mating with a male will produce more offspring, and for males, hermaphrodites are the only crying game in town.
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 18341 - Posted: 07.03.2013
By Scicurious Sometimes, funny stories really bring out the wonder of the human body. You can get orgasms triggered in your feet, because of overlap in the sensory cortex. Receptors that are involved in narcolepsy are also involved in how much you eat. And knocking out receptors that regulate taste…can make you sterile? Who knew? Let’s start with taste. We taste because the chemicals in foods hit receptors on our tongues. Receptors for sweet, salt, bitter, sour, and umami (which can commonly be thought of as “savory”). Now, a receptor isn’t just a single protein, it’s actually several protein subunits working together to function. So, for example, the receptor subunit TAS1R3 is a subunit that can play two different tasting roles. When combined with one other subunit, it helps to sense sweet (like saccharin), and when combined with another, if helps you taste umami (like MSG, which is definitely umami flavored). If you get rid of the gene for TAS1R3, you end up with an animal that can’t detect either sweet or umami very well. There’s another subunit that is covered in this paper as well, GNAT3. GNAT3, instead of being specific for something like sweet or bitter, instead plays a role in “basic taste“. But these two protein subunits are not JUST expressed on the tongue and in the gastrointestinal tract. They are expressed elsewhere in the body…and especially in the testicles. © 2013 Scientific American
By Carrie Arnold We all experience the occasional life-changing event—a new baby, a cross-country move, a serious injury. In rare cases, such events can precipitate a mental disorder. The problem is compounded because people often assume their suffering is par for the course after such upheaval. In reality, relief is probably a short treatment away, via therapy or medication. For a new mother, dealing with a newborn is fraught with anxieties. Did I fasten the car seat properly? Is the baby still breathing? In more than one in 10 new mothers, these normal worries can escalate into more serious obsessions that can interfere with her ability to care for herself and her baby. Most of the research on postpartum psychiatric problems has focused on depression and psychosis. Obstetricians such as Emily Miller of Northwestern University, however, were also noticing a range of anxiety-related disorders, including intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. “It's good to check that your baby is strapped into the car seat,” Miller notes. “But these women aren't just doing it once. They're doing it over and over, and it's interfering with their lives.” With her colleagues, Miller followed 461 women after they gave birth. Eleven percent said they had obsessions and compulsions two weeks after delivery that the researchers found to be the equivalent of mild to moderate obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—a sharp increase over the 2 to 3 percent rate of OCD in the general population. Half of these women's symptoms continued six months' postpartum, and an additional 5.4 percent developed new OCD symptoms in that time. The afflicted women indicated that their symptoms were distressing, taking up a significant amount of time and otherwise interfering with their daily life. © 2013 Scientific American
A randomized clinical trial of estrogen therapy in younger postmenopausal women, aged 50–55, has found no long-term risk or benefit to cognitive function. The National Institutes of Health-supported study, reported in JAMA Internal Medicine on June 24, 2013, looked at women taking conjugated equine estrogens, the most common type of postmenopausal hormone therapy in the United States. The earlier Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS) linked the same type of hormone therapy to cognitive decline and dementia in older postmenopausal women. The new findings come from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study of Younger Women (WHIMSY) trial and were reported by Mark A. Espeland, Ph.D., Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C., on behalf of the academic research centers involved in the study. The study was funded primarily by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), along with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), both components of the NIH. “The WHIMS study found that estrogen-based postmenopausal hormone therapy produced deficits in cognitive function and increased risk for dementia when prescribed to women 65 and older,” said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. “Researchers leading the WHIMSY study wanted to expand on those results by exploring the possibility of a window of opportunity whereby hormone therapy might promote or preserve brain health when given to younger women.” “In contrast to findings in older postmenopausal women, this study tells women that taking these types of estrogen-based hormone therapies for a relatively short period of time in their early postmenopausal years may not put them at increased risk for cognitive decline over the long term,” said Susan Resnick, Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience, in NIA’s Intramural Research Program and a co-author of the study. “Further, it is important to note that we did not find any cognitive benefit after long-term follow-up.”
by Traci Watson For the male dark fishing spider, the price of love is death. New research shows that the male Dolomedes tenebrosus (right) expires just after the height of passion, despite no visible assault by his partner. Scientists collected the common U.S. arachnids (see image) in Nebraska parks and did a little matchmaking. In 25 observed matings, after the male stuffed his sperm into the female's body using his antennalike pedipalp, he immediately went limp and his legs curled underneath him, researchers report online today in Biology Letters. By counting the pulse rate in the spiders' abdomens, researchers measured the heartbeat of motionless males and confirmed that they do indeed die. As if death weren't sacrifice enough, the scientists found that lovemaking also disfigures the male. In most spiders, part of the male's pedipalp swells to deliver sperm before shrinking to normal size. In D. tenebrosus, the pedipalp remains enormously enlarged and presumably useless even after the deed is done. Evolutionary theory predicts male monogamy—such as that shown by the dark fishing spider—when females are larger than males. Smaller animals are more likely to survive to mating age than big ones, the thinking goes, making larger females scarcer than smaller males. And that means males must settle for just one inamorata. True to theory, the female dark fishing spider, whose outstretched legs span a human's palm, outweighs her man 14-to-1. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By Brigid Schulte, Unlike the male pundits, politicians and even financiers who’ve opined freely recently about what they consider “natural” roles for mothers and fathers, with mom at home and dad at work, behavioral neuroscientist Kelly Lambert’s methodical approach has led her to a much more complicated conclusion. From her perch at Randolph-Macon College in rural Ashland, Va., Lambert has spent years designing elaborate experiments to test nurturing in both male and female rodents. She anesthetizes the animals, carefully removes their brains, firms the brains up with formalin, freezes them, then shaves them into slices thinner than a strand of human hair to study under a microscope. What Lambert’s rodent brain slices are revealing is nothing short of revolutionary, challenging the loud pundits and long-held cultural views that only mothers are wired for nurture. Lambert, one of a small but growing number of scientists who study the biology of father behavior, is finding that not just mothers experience surges of hormones associated with bonding and nurturing. The same hormones increase, though not to the same degree, in fathers. Rat mothers are not the only ones whose brains become sharper, making them more efficient foragers and more courageous and level-headed than females without offspring. Lambert has found that the same is true of fathers’ brains. Fatherhood makes the male California deer mouse smarter, too. © 1996-2013 The Washington Post
// by Jennifer Viegas It goes a little something like this: A young male zebra finch, whose father taught him a song, shared that song with a brother, with the two youngsters then creating new tunes based on dad’s signature sound. The musical bird family, described in the latest Biology Letters, strengthens evidence that imitation between siblings and similar-aged youngsters facilitates vocal learning. The theory could help to explain why families with multiple same sex siblings, such as the Bee Gees and the Jackson 5, often form such successful musical groups. Co-author Sébastien Derégnaucourt told Discovery News that, among humans, “infants have a visual preference for peers of the same age, which may facilitate imitation.” He added that it’s also “known that children can have an impact on each other’s language acquisition, such as in the case of the emergence of creole languages, whether spoken or signed, among children exposed to pidgin (a grammatically simplified form of a language).” Pidgin in this case is more like pigeon, since the study focused on birds. Derégnaucourt, an associate professor at University Paris West, collaborated with Manfred Gahr of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. The two researchers studied how the young male zebra finch from a bird colony in Germany learned from his avian dad. © 2013 Discovery Communications, LLC.
Helen Shen The case of the missing bird penis is a long-standing mystery in evolutionary biology. But the identification of a molecular mechanism that controls penis loss in birds goes some way to solving this conundrum. Roughly 97% of avian species sport little or nothing in the way of a phallus, despite reproducing by internal fertilization. A study published today in Current Biology1 shows that the development of chicken penises is cut short by signals that promote cell death. “This paper would be in Nature or Science if it were about people,” says Richard Prum, an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “The whole result is entirely novel.” Male chickens, which possess only a rudimentary phallic nub, pump their sperm into females using a 'cloacal kiss' — a move that presses together the male and female cloacas, openings used for waste excretion and copulation. By contrast, ducks boast large and elaborately coiled penises that can measure about half the length of their bodies2. To better understand the signals that control penis growth, researchers led by Martin Cohn, a developmental biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, looked for differences between developing duck and chicken embryos. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 18246 - Posted: 06.08.2013
By Susan Milius Lyrebirds are famous for the mimicked sounds they sing, but they now have another claim to fame: They dance to their own songs. “Just as we waltz to waltz music but we salsa to salsa music, so lyrebirds perform different dance movements to different types of songs,” says Anastasia Dalziell of the Australian National University in Canberra. She and her colleagues scrutinized videos of male superb lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae) showing off in the wild for possible mates. The males’ combinations of hums, clicks, trills and other sexy syllables fell into four distinctive song types, the researchers say. At least the first three types are not mimicry but lyrebird originals, Dalziell says. In courtship, males sing the songs in a fairly predictable order and usually match each to its own mix of dance moves and postures. The birds side-step, turn and flare their outsized lyre-shaped tails. Matching a type of music with a style of gesture is not unique to humankind, the researchers report June 6 in Current Biology. Performing for females, a male lyrebird dances to the music he makes. And yes, the bird makes the noises heard in the video. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
By Breanna Draxler Is it a coincidence that the word vole is an anagram of love? Probably so, but since prairie voles mate for life, they have since been designated as the unofficial species used to study monogamy in lab animals. And a new study finds that their rare partnerships are cemented by chemical changes on their genes, called epigenetic changes, that result from their sexual encounters. When a prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) finds a mate, the two form a strong bond. Not only do they stay together for life and share child care duties, but the lovers will guard their mates aggressively against voles of the opposite sex. Scientists knew from previous studies that this bonding was regulated by neurotransmitters—chemical communicators in the brain such as oxytocin, which is linked to sex and reproduction, and vasopressin, associated with social recognition. However researchers were unsure what the biological basis was for such a sharp behavioral shift after mating. To find out, scientists at Florida State University paired up virgin male and female voles and gave the couples a cage together for a number of hours. Some couples were allowed to mate while others were prevented from doing so. The non-mating female voles instead received drug injections in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s pleasure center. The drugs affected the voles’ epigenetics by unwinding their DNA so that genes for vasopressin and oxytocin receptors were more highly transcribed.
A patient at the Kwong Wah and Queen Elizabeth Hospitals discovered he was also a woman when he came for treatment for a swelling abdomen. Photo: Nora Tam A 66-year-old apparently male patient made a stunning discovery when he sought treatment for swelling in his abdomen. The swelling was a cyst on his ovary and he was in fact a woman. The condition was caused by a very rare combination of two genetic disorders. One, Turner syndrome, causes women to lack some female features, including the ability to get pregnant. Sufferers usually look like women, but in this case the patient also had congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which boosted the male hormones and made the patient look like a man. The case was reported by doctors from Kwong Wah Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital, who treated the patient. It was published in the Hong Kong Medical Journal yesterday. "The patient, by definition, is a woman who cannot get pregnant. But she also has CAH, which gave her the appearance of a man," Chinese University paediatrics professor Ellis Hon Kam-lun said. "It's an interesting and very rare case of having the two combinations. It probably won't be seen again in the near future." The 66-year-old Vietnam-born Chinese man is an orphan. He has a beard, small penis and no testes. Just 1.37 metres tall, he has decided to continue perceiving himself as a male and may receive male hormone treatment, the report said. © 2013 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd
by Kim Krieger The song of the cicada has been romanticized in mariachi music, used to signify summer in Japanese cinematography, and cursed by many an American suburbanite wishing for peace and quiet. Despite the bugs' ubiquity, scientists haven't uncovered how they sing so loudly—some are as noisy as a jet engine—and why they don't expend much energy doing it. But researchers reported in Montreal yesterday at the 21st International Congress on Acoustics that they now have the answer. The detailed mechanism of the cicada's song is far from fully understood, says Paulo Fonseca, an animal acoustician at the University of Lisbon who was not involved in the project. The work by the researchers "is innovative and paves our way to a better understanding of this complex system allowing such small animals to produce such powerful sound." Cicadas aren't just a natural curiosity. Small devices that produce extremely loud noises while requiring very little power appeal to the U.S. Navy, which uses sonar for underwater exploration and communication. Derke Hughes, a research engineer at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island, says that the loudest cicadas can make a noise 20 to 40 dB louder than the compact off-the-shelf RadioShack speaker in his office using the same amount of power. Intrigued, he and his colleagues used microcomputed tomography)—a kind of CT scan that picks up details as small as a micron in size—to image a cicada's tymbal, which helps the insect make its deafening chirp. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By Susan Milius After death, male guppies can keep on siring offspring because females store sperm for so long. As a result, a living male in a stream in Trinidad can end up competing with long-gone fish from his grandfather’s generation. At its most posthumously successful, stored ghost sperm sired about one in four of the offspring among wild guppies released into a stream, evolutionary biologist Andrés López-Sepulcre of École Normale Supérieure in Paris and his colleagues report June 5 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Biologists have long known that female Poecilia reticulata guppies store sperm. The cells clump in little pockets in a female’s ovarian cavity and feed on sugars released by ovarian tissue. Storage in itself isn’t unusual, López-Sepulcre says. Some crabs, turtles, lizards, bats and other creatures preserve sperm for later use. Posthumous reproduction by stored sperm also isn’t unheard of. “The fun part of our study,” López-Sepulcre says, “is that you have males who are alive and males who are dead competing with each other.” Researchers deployed guppies in several streams as part of a study on evolutionary change. Every month researchers catch, check and release as many fish as possible to track deaths and births. They also genetically analyze parenthood of the fish. Female guppies give live birth to broods of two to about 10 youngsters, with not all sired by the same male. Females live about 15 months; males about three. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013