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Why female moths are big and beautiful

In most animal species, males and females show obvious differences in body size. But how can this be, given that both sexes share the same genes governing their growth? University of Arizona entomologists studied this conundrum in moths and found clues that had been overlooked by previous efforts to explain this mystery of nature.

Take a look around in the animal world and you will find that, in most organisms, individuals of one sex are larger than the other of the species.

Even though evolutionary biologists have long recognized this discrepancy, called sexual dimorphism, they have struggled for decades to solve a major paradox: How can males and females of one species be of different sizes, given that they share the same genetic blueprints dictating their development and growth?

Researchers from the University of Arizona have discovered that the key to unraveling this mystery lies in the early developmental stages during which the sexes begin to grow apart and that females can respond to selection on size almost twice as fast as can males.

Their findings are published online before print in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B.

"In mammals, the males tend to be larger because there is an advantage in being bigger and stronger when it comes to fighting over who gets the female," explained Craig Stillwell, lead author of the study and a UA Center for Insect Science postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Goggy Davidowitz, an assistant professor of entomology at the UA.

"In most arthropods, on the other hand, we find the opposite: the females are bigger than the males. Think of spiders, for example. In some species, the female can be hundreds of times larger than the male.

"The question we asked was, 'how do females and males come to be different in size?'"

Many biologists have tried to solve this puzzle over time, but when Stillwell and Davidowitz looked

Contact: Daniel Stolte
University of Arizona

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