Damselfly sex doesn’t always produce children, and that’s a problem for evolutionary biologists!

Background:  At the core of ecology and evolutionary biology is the concept of “fitness”, broadly defined as the number of copies of an animal’s genes it manages to leave in subsequent generations. However, biologist rarely measure this genetic fitness.  Instead, we use proxies such as the number of times an animal mated or the number of eggs an animal laid. Sometimes, we use proxies that are even further removed, such as body size (under the assumption that larger females lay more eggs).

What we did: This study compared two traditional forms of fitness measurement, daily mating rate and lifetime mating success, with a genetic measure of fitness based on finding the number of offspring each individual produced in the next generation.  We monitored a single, isolated pond over two years and individually identified all damselflies of the species Coenagrion puella, the azure damselfly.  Each individual also had a genetic sample taken and we used genetic markers called “microsatellites” to identify each individual.  When we came back the next year, we did the same thing.  This species goes through one generation per year so we knew that all the animals in the second year were the offspring of those in the first.  By comparing the genetics of the potential parents with those of the potential offspring we were able to assign offspring to parents to produce a much more accurate picture of this concept of “fitness”.  Unfortunately, what we found was that our behavioural measurements did not reflect this more accurate measure of fitness.

Importance: Since the concept of fitness is so important to evolutionary biology, it is important to test the assumptions of the studies that have sought to measure it.  We have demonstrated that some of those previous studies were not using particularly reliable proxies for fitness.  However, we have provided a case study of a potential method for avoiding these problems: by directly genotyping and assigning parents to offspring in the field we can get a much clearer picture of what “fitness” really means.


This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Field estimates of reproductive success in a model insect: behavioural surrogates are poor predictors of fitness”, was published in the journal Ecology Letters in 2011. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: One of mine, CC-BY 3.0

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