I recently wrote a press release about Barry Sinervo’s American Naturalist paper on a three-parted mating strategy in lizards. In two different and very widely separated species, male lizards seem to be born with one of three philosophies: that of the bully, the sneak, or the faithful. Each philosophy seems to be the antidote to one – but only one – of the others. It’s like a game of rock-paper-scissors, and Sinervo, who has been studying this problem for 20 years, thinks it’s a fundamental dynamic that shapes many societies, even our own.
So what headline do you give to such an intriguing story of strategy and power? If you’re Fox News, you call it Three-way lizard sex war goes back 175 million years.
Sometimes I think the only reason newspapers run science stories is the bizarre headlines they get to think up. The KSJ Tracker has a nice compilation of similar ones concocted for an otherwise extremely cool story about cycads and their complicated, push-pull relationship with their pollinators. Top prize for unabashedness goes to ABC Australia: Plants enjoy hot, smelly sex in the tropics.
Cycads are, to the undiscerning eye, palm trees with monstrous, scaly, torpedo-shaped cones of pollen or seeds. (I say undiscerning because they’re not actually even faintly related to palms.) The species under study in this week’s Science paper is pollinated by tiny, odd insects called thrips that dwell in the cracks between the scales on those great big male and female cones.
Trouble is, thrips are so tiny that a between-scale crevice is plenty of room to live out their lives – leaving them little cause to periodically trek over to a female cone with a bucketful of pollen. So the cycads give the thrips a gentle shove out the door each day by upping their metabolism and raising the temperature in their male cones by as much as 12 degrees.
This volatilizes a turpentine-like resin in the cones that can be toxic at high concentrations. On cue, the pollen-dusted thrips head out and find themselves irresistibly drawn over to the female cones, which are giving off a faint perfume of their own. At the end of the day everything cools off, the male cones give off the fainter scent, and the thrips migrate back over.
This kind of push-pull manipulation of the pollinator is astounding in both its spontaneous complexity and its simplicity (the faint, attractive scent turns out to be just a lower concentration of the toxic turpentine-like chemical). So why does it all get boiled down to hot, smelly sex in the headlines?
But then, headlines are a kind of push-pull strategy themselves. They draw in you good readers to someplace you might not normally go, then push you back out again, moments later, to pollinate the world with new ideas. On second thought, maybe three-way lizard sex wars are good for the human race after all.
***Two notes about thrips: First, they are not beetles, as Science‘s editors unaccountably claim in their table of contents blurb. And second, my favorite thrips editorial fact: You can never have one thrip – only one thrips. They’re kind of the opposite of deer in that way.