But More Successful in Attracting High Quality Males
Sexual dimorphism in which males and females differ from each other morphologically is widespread among animals and occurs in many groups, e.g., to name but a few: insects, spiders, fishes, birds and even mammals. It puzzled already Charles Darwin why, for instance, some male moths and male beetles frequently had much larger and seemingly better developed antennae (which during Darwin’s time had not been identified as the sensors for odours, but were seen merely as touch receptors). He and many other researchers felt that the larger development of certain structures in male animals served as ‘advertisements of prowess and vitality’ and indicated to a female the presence of a superior sex partner. That enlargements and greater conspicuousness of structures increased the chances of being recognized (and preyed upon) could, of course, have been a handicap, which is why Zahavi suggested females chose males because they had survived and reached sexual maturity despite being more vulnerable and in greater danger of being attacked than cryptic ones.
What, according to Australian researchers Mark Elgar et al. had not fully been considered till 2018 in the discussion of sexual dimorphisms and attractiveness (at least with regard to insects in which female individuals release some odoriferous chemicals known as pheromones) was the role sensors play. Large and often plumose antennae in insects contain receptors that detect the presence of molecules in the air, i.e. chemicals released by plants, possible food items and, of course, females in case of moths and many beetles. Some of these sensors or so incredibly sensitive that only a few key molecules need to be present for the males to respond to. In case of some moths, a male can smell a female 10 km away. To maintain the sensitivity of sense organs, whether they be mechano-, photo- or chemoreceptors and to process the information received by them is energetically expensive as my former colleague Dr Simon Laughlin at Cambridge University has shown. Consequently, as has been argued, those males with the most highly sensitive sensors are more ‘valuable’ than males, whose sensors only respond to the most obvious and strongest stimulation. But how to eliminate the latter and favour the former?
Maybe some female moths and beetles that attract their males with pheromones have found a way. If a female sends out a strong pheromone signal, the latter will disperse widely and reach a huge number of possible male partners, including those that have rather insensitive “noses”, in other words do not exactly possess a highly developed sensory system. But they are not the males the females want to have as “fathers for their babies”; the females want those males that are alert to the slightest of stimulation and what better way to get their attention than to emit only a fraction of the pheromone that is so successful in reaching all kinds of males near and far? This is apparently a strategy that works, because young females which because of their age can afford to be choosy, use it, while older females that have not obtained a partner increase the amount of pheromone they emit.
Whether this idea of “less being more” can be applied to vertebrates as well has not been tested (yet). However, if we take an unbiased, objective look at our own species, aren’t we observing that it is those who are beautiful and attractive as young individuals that need less make-up, lipstick, and other beauty-enhancing stuff than physically less fortunate females, who want to become more noticeable to men through exaggerations? And isn’t the use of perfume, wrinkle-hiding cream, eye-catching jewellery increasing among older females? Perhaps there is indeed a parallel to female moths and beetles. But what about the males that the females attract? There, too, could be a parallel: the less sharply observant and somewhat superficial males do not see beyond the make-up on the skin, the red colour of the lips and the artificially enhanced signals of the female. It takes “sensitivity” and “smartness” (as in case of the male moths and beetles), for males to identify a quality female. And yet, it seems enhanced female signalling is there to stay – in moths, beetles and humans as well.
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