Sunday, August 24, 2008

Playing dead

Just read a neat paper on the heritability of death feigning and how it may be selected for in the wild by Miyatake et al. (2004). Death feigning is when a creature pretends to be dead, either by falling off a twig and curling up its legs, or by freezing, presumably to escape predation. The gray death-feigning beetle pictured above can feign death for up to thirty minutes (according to the beetle dealer). What Miyatake and the others wanted to know was, is this death-feigning ability heritable, and does it actually help them escape predation?

So they took 200 red flour beetles and recorded how long they played dead for after touching them with a stick. The 10 males and 10 females who feigned death the longest were used to start a long line, and the 10 males and 10 females who feigned death the shortest were used to start a short line. They then repeated this procedure for ten generations, allowing only the 20 longest feigners and 20 shortest feigners to reproduce each generation.

After ten generations, they found that the long line feigned death for a longer period of time than the short line did. The long line feigned death for over a minute and a half, while the short line only feigned death for about 5 seconds. They also found a difference in the numbers of individuals who actually feigned death. What they saw was 86% of the long-line individuals feigned death, while only 7% of the short-line individuals feigned death.

So now they know that death feigning is heritable and can be selected for or against in nature, but does it actually work to help save them from predators? Will it actually be selected in nature? To find this out, they introduced a predator and recorded survivorship and behaviors of short-line and long-line individuals. What they found was that the jumper spider used as a predator would lose interest in the beetle if it feigned death. So most of the long-line individuals survived (64%), and most of the short-line beetles were eaten (73%).

So if the beetles have predators in an area that act like the jumper spider, you could expect that the beetles in those areas would have long death-feigning times, but in other areas without such predators, you may expect shorter feigning times. Now all you have to do is go out and test that!


Kate said...

Is that Stumpy?

Doesn't stuff like this make you wish you had multiple degrees in multiple disciplines within biology?

I need more exposure to desert species (and preferably not spiders and scorpions!) to be interested in so I won't suffer from marine invert deprivation.

Brine Queen said...

That's her! Isn't she so cute?

Scorpions are cool. They glow under blacklight, and nobody knows why...

Baker Watson said...

That was interesting. I've always wondered how effective feigning death is though I presumed there must be some basis for it or it would likely not be found across so many species.

And cool looking beetle, too.