ScienceTake: For Fiddler Crabs, ‘Size Does Matter’

A. They live in burrows, and you only see them at low tide. At high tide, they go back into the burrow and they seal it up. They feed on mud flats by sifting the sediment through their mouth parts and eating microorganisms.

The female has two little claws — two normal-size claws for her — which she uses to help that feeding, to help pass the sediment up to her mouth. The male has one that it uses for feeding. And the other is huge. It’s greatly enlarged, to the point that it can be approximately half of his body weight. It’s often really brightly colored as well.

Now, what the males do is that they wave this claw in a species-specific pattern. So each species of fiddler crab has its own kind of wave, and they do this to maintain a territory, but also to attract a female.

What do females like in a male crab?

Size does matter. The females like larger claws. They likely indicate a male that’s big. He can offer her a big burrow, because she goes into that to incubate her eggs. Also, crustaceans continue to grow for their majority of their lives, so a bigger male is older, which means that he’s a survivor so he’d be a good one to mate with. He’s probably got good genes for survival.

And they prefer fast claw-waving?

They like males that wave and drum more rapidly. And what we showed in an experiment published in 2017 was that these vigorous displays, they’re actually very energetically demanding and deplete a male’s stamina. But despite this, males that wave rapidly or drum rapidly actually have greater stamina.

And we tested this by putting them into a sprint track. We made them run after a bout of these vigorous displays. Males that signalled more vigorously were speedier in the sprint trials.

We had robot replica males that we could program to either escalate, as if they are increasing their signaling, signal at a constant rate, or de-escalate, as if they’re getting fatigued. And we caught females wandering on the mud flat, which means that they’re usually looking for males, and then presented them with these robots and looked at the choices.

What we actually found was that they did, indeed, prefer the escalating males over the ones that were slowing down. So they do pay attention to those changes in rate.

Were the females terribly disappointed when they realized they had been tricked?

Once they got to the robot, they would touch the base plate of it and realize there’s something wrong here — it’s not real. And they would usually at that point stop moving or run away.

Some of them actually responded as if he were a real male crab, which is by tickling him. What the females do is go up to the male and use their legs on one side of their body to tickle him. This communicates to him that she’s interested in him as a mate, and she’s not just trying to steal his home.

Is there more to find out about fiddler crab mating?

The fiddler crabs are like little invertebrate peacocks. Why is so much going on there? Why has he got the huge tail with all the colors, why does he have to do a dance?

The same is true with the fiddler crabs and many, many other animals throughout the animal kingdom that perform either complex or even quite simple courtship displays, like our waving claw. It’d be really interesting to tease apart which bits exactly are important to females.

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ScienceTake: Curious Orangutans, Raised by Humans, Do Better on Cognitive Tests

First they exposed them to new foods and plastic snakes and other novelties.

The ones who had spent their youth in the forest, learned the lessons of caution well. They didn’t try new foods, avoided the fake snake and in general showed the expected lack of curiosity.

Which makes sense. “Imagine you were dropped in the middle of a rain forest,” said Dr. Damerius. It would be unwise to touch all the plants, let alone pop them in your mouth.

But the orangutans raised by humans or brought to a rehab center at a young age experienced a relatively safe environment and human role models who were themselves curious. They were far more likely to eat the dyed purple rice or potato mush, and to investigate a fake snake.

In the second part of the experiment, the researchers used a variety of cognitive tests, requiring the apes to figure out how to open a box, or reach into a chamber in an awkward way to get a treat, or other tasks.

The more curious orangutans did much better.

Dr. Damerius said the research showed several things. It confirmed what is called the captivity effect, that time spent in a zoo or other safe environment promotes curiosity.

And it also showed that the younger the apes were when they spent time with humans the more curious they were. Orangutans that grew up in the forest did not have a big spike in curiosity from being at a rehabilitation center.

It also showed that curiosity helps in what are usually thought of as intelligence tests. “Curiosity is contributing to problem solving,” Dr. Damerius said. ”It increases the opportunities for learning.”

In addition, a species thought to be incurious turned out to be quite curious in the right circumstances. So this was a matter of environmental influence, not genetic endowment. She said it was “striking” that the different environment could elicit curiosity in orangutans. “I think there is this dormant, inherited potential.”

The findings do raise a question, she said, about what it means to release an orangutan with more developed curiosity back into the wild, where it may well be the unexamined snake that makes life possible, let alone worth living.

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