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Water Pollution Allows Unhealthy Males to Breed More

Normally three spined sticklebacks are less likely to find a mate when they are affected with parasites, but does this change with eutrophication? (Image Credit: Sam Perrin, NTNU, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Reversed parasite-mediated selection in sticklebacks from eutrophied habitats (2010) Heuschele & Candolin, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology DOI: 10.1007/s00265-010-0937-9

The Crux

We’ve all heard the stories of turtles choking on plastic bags, or birds swallowing sporks. Algae grows out of control due to chemicals being added to the water, which changes the native habitat. For fish like sticklebacks, where males compete for the attention of females, the loss of visibility has the potential to be a problem for the females. Male sticklebacks defend a territory, develop a bright red spot, and fight other males. The long and short of it is that the bigger, stronger, and prettier fish mate more and the weaker and uglier fish don’t. One thing that weaker males tend to have more of than stronger males are parasites, which isn’t a surprise as a parasite’s entire existence revolves around surviving at the expense of whatever organism is unfortunate enough to have them.

Understanding how eutrophication affects female choice in relation to parasites, and thus the reproductive dynamics of this system, is quite important. This paper tries to map that out, using the Baltic Sea around Southern Finland. This experiment is well-suited to the problem, as there has already been evidence for algal growth changing the dynamics of stickleback reproduction.

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