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Parental care: an evolutionary case of “use it or lose it”

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Phenotypic plasticity enables animals to flexibly adjust their behaviour to their social environment – sometimes through the expression of adaptive traits that have not been exhibited for several generations. The ability to revive these ‘ghosts of adaptations past’ could prove beneficial for populations living in a changing world. For this reason, it is important to understand how long adaptive traits can persist if they are no longer routinely expressed. For many animals parental care is a fundamental social interaction, but one that could potentially be subject to change in a world being challenged by climate change and habitat destruction. By creating evolutionary lines of burying beetles Nicrophorus vespilloides, an insect that shows highly unusual and somewhat gruesome parental care, and allowing them to exhibit contrasting regimes of parental care for nearly 50 generations, we investigated whether even traits fundamental to a species’ natural history start to decay irretrievably when not expressed over evolutionary time. I’ll be presenting the results of these experiments and asking what this means for our understanding of the relative costs and benefits of parental care, and what implications this has for conservation captive breeding programmes and animal husbandry techniques.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Science Society series.

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