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September 6, 2015 | by  | in Science | [ssba]

Fishy Feminism

This article discusses sexual violence by animals.

In the last issue before the midterm break, Salient addressed some of the issues being faced by women around the world, and acknowledged the resilience and power of certain ladies in their fight for feminism. This week, Salient Science decided to take a look at the battles being fought by the females, in species other than our own.

As it turns out, it’s a dog eat dog world out there. Or maybe more accurately, it’s a fish fuck fish world. A number of recent studies showed that it’s a hard knock life for female fish, who face serious danger as a result of high levels of sexual harassment from their male counterparts.

Sexual reproduction is obviously vital to species survival, and in the animal world, males are often observed attempting to entice females, or even force entry, if their offer of sex is initially rejected. Different species have developed different mechanisms to deal with these conflicts of interest, and in the fish world, evolutionary biologists have now found that male guppies can develop claws on their genitals in order to “hold on” to an unreceptive females. (Yeah, I know, ouch…)

But these lady fish don’t take the harassment lying down. The studies revealed incredible levels of both adaptation and resilience from the females.

The fight against unwanted sexual attention from males has become so strong, that females guppies are segregating the genders and risking their own death. Research conducted by Dr Safi Darden and Dr Darren Croft from Bangor University revealed that female guppies are opting to spend time in high risk predator areas, in an attempt to discourage unwanted attention from their males counterparts. The logic goes that since male guppies are significantly more brightly coloured than females, if both genders are found in predator territory, the males are more likely to be eaten first.

As well as this, female guppies have also been found to change their physiology in order to reduce their chances of sexual harassment. A study conducted by the Universities of Glasgow and Exeter found that female fish exposed to high levels of sexual harassment are developing mechanisms which allow them to swim faster. In the same way that an athlete’s body changes after years of intense training, female guppies frequently harassed by males are demonstrating changes in their pectoral fins, which allow them to swim faster, and with less associated energy costs.

Scientists have also observed evolutionary changes to the genitalia of female fish in response to sexual harassment. A number of fish in different locations in the Bahamas were studied, and it was found that in high risk areas, females genitals had evolved in a way that allowed them to be more selective about who they choose to mate with. The theory explains a kind of “lock and key” situation, where females in high risk areas have evolved genitals that favoured copulation with certain desirable male “keys” (dicks). These same evolutionary changes have not been noted in areas without the threat of predation.

Studies into other species have revealed that aggressive male mating behaviour can endanger species. Although aggressive sexual behaviour can prove beneficial for the one individual trying to get laid, it can lead the species as a whole to extinction, as it harms females in the process and fosters the further breeding of aggressive behaviours. Economists refer to these clashes between the interests of the individual and the group as the “tragedy of the commons”.

As is so often the case, these studies in nature reveal lessons which are of value to humans. There are limited resources and we must not overexploit these. In particular, please, look after the ladies.


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