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Biologists devise unifying framework to explain evolutionary puzzles
Date:6/4/2009

KNOXVILLE -- Birds are commonly thought of as being the paragon of monogamous fidelity, staying true to their mate for life. Yet, in most bird species, some nests contain offspring of individuals other than the one's tending the nest.

Why would a bird invest in another bird's offspring when genetically such parenting would seem to provide no evolutionary advantage? Many scientists are trying to understand how evolution leads to this phenomenon called "extra-pair parentage."

Erol Akay, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, is one such scientist who has examined the function of extra-pair parentage. His research has drawn some surprising conclusions, including the idea that extra-pair parentage might result from reproductive "agreements" and transactions between breeding individuals, instead of being the result of males and females "cheating" on each other.

Akay is part of a group of leading theoretical biologists, ecologists, and mathematicians who will gather at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, June 10-12, to develop a new unified framework for evolutionary biology one that accounts for phenomena like the cooperative behavior exemplified by extra-pair parentage.

The group's goal is to integrate the dynamics of how biological systems function and how these functional dynamics evolve. Functional dynamics refers to the processes that make an organism work, such as the physiological processes of the body, the hormones and cells, and the behavior of individuals. Evolution looks at how organisms change over time. "These two approaches actually complement each other and need to be looked at together," Akay said.

Using bird behavior as an example of functional dynamics, Akay said, male and female birds care for their offspring, defend against predators, and bring food to the nest. "But should what the birds are doing be viewed as co
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Contact: Catherine Crawley
ccrawley@nimbios.org
865-974-9350
National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis
Source:Eurekalert

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