6708 PB Wageningen
Dr. Melissah Rowe
My fascination with sexual selection was sparked during my undergraduate studies (Macquarie University, Australia) when I learned about Jonathan Waage’s work on sperm displacement in damselflies. This set me off on an adventure that has taken me around the world. I completed my PhD at the University of Chicago (USA) and a postdoctoral fellowship at Arizona State University (USA), before moving to Norway to work on sperm evolution at the Natural History Museum of Oslo. In 2014, I became a junior group leader at the University of Oslo, where my group investigated the role of microbes in the functional evolution of avian ejaculates.
In 2019, I joined the Department of Animal Ecology at NIOO-KNAW. Research in my group focuses on understanding why and how individuals vary in their ability to reproduce, with a particular focus on understanding the consequences of variation in post-copulatory sexual traits for fitness. We work primarily with passerine birds and use a wide range of methodological and analytical approaches in both field-based studies of natural populations and experimental work in captive populations.
Mating behavior can play a key role in speciation by inhibiting or facilitating gene flow between closely related taxa. Hybrid zones facilitate a direct examination of mating behavior and the traits involved in establishing species barriers. The long-tailed finch (Poephila acuticauda) has two hybridizing subspecies that differ in bill color (red and yellow), and the yellow bill phenotype appears to have introgressed ~350 km eastward following secondary contact. To examine the role of mate choice on bill color introgression, we performed behavioral assays using natural and manipulated bill colors. We found an assortative female mating preference for males of their own subspecies when bill color was not manipulated. However, we did not find this assortative preference in trials based on artificially manipulated bill color. This could suggest that assortative preference is not fixed entirely on bill color and instead may be based on a different trait (e.g., song) or a combination of traits, or alternatively may be due to lower statistical power alongside the bill manipulations being unconvincing to the female choosers. Intriguingly, we find a bias in the inheritance of bill color in captive bred F1 hybrid females. Previous modeling suggests that assortative mate preference and this kind of partial dominance in the underlying genes may together contribute to introgression, making the genetic architecture of bill color in this system a priority for future research.
Hybridization can result in novel allelic combinations which can impact the hybrid phenotype through changes in gene expression. While misexpression in F1 hybrids is well documented, how gene expression evolves in stabilized hybrid taxa remains an open question. As gene expression evolves in a stabilizing manner, break-up of co-evolved cis- and trans-regulatory elements could lead to transgressive patterns of gene expression in hybrids. Here, we address to what extent gonad gene expression has evolved in an established and stable homoploid hybrid, the Italian sparrow (Passer italiae). Through comparison of gene expression in gonads from individuals of the two parental species (i.e., house and Spanish sparrow) to that of Italian sparrows, we find evidence for strongly transgressive expression in male Italian sparrows—2530 genes (22% of testis genes tested for inheritance) exhibit expression patterns outside the range of both parent species. In contrast, Italian sparrow ovary expression was similar to that of one of the parent species, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). Moreover, the Italian sparrow testis transcriptome is 26 times as diverged from those of the parent species as the parental transcriptomes are from each other, despite being genetically intermediate. This highlights the potential for regulation of gene expression to produce novel variation following hybridization. Genes involved in mitochondrial respiratory chain complexes and protein synthesis are enriched in the subset that is over-dominantly expressed in Italian sparrow testis, suggesting that selection on key functions has moulded the hybrid Italian sparrow transcriptome.
Sperm competition is thought to impose strong selection on males to produce competitive ejaculates to outcompete rival males under competitive mating conditions. Our understanding of how different sperm traits influence fertilization success, however, remains limited, especially in wild populations. Recent literature highlights the importance of incorporating multiple ejaculate traits and pre-copulatory sexually selected traits in analyses aimed at understanding how selection acts on sperm traits. However, variation in a male’s ability to gain fertilization success may also depend upon a range of social and ecological factors that determine the opportunity for mating events both within and outside of the social pair-bond. Here, we test for an effect of sperm quantity and sperm size on male reproductive success in the red-back fairy-wren (Malurus melanocephalus) while simultaneously accounting for pre-copulatory sexual selection and potential socio-ecological correlates of male mating success. We found that sperm number (i.e., cloacal protuberance volume), but not sperm morphology, was associated with reproductive success in male red-backed fairy-wrens. Most notably, males with large numbers of sperm available for copulation achieved greater within-pair paternity success. Our results suggest that males use large sperm numbers as a defensive strategy to guard within-pair paternity success in a system where there is a high risk of sperm competition and female control of copulation. Finally, our work highlights the importance of accounting for socio-ecological factors that may influence male mating opportunities when examining the role of sperm traits in determining male reproductive success.
Spermatozoa exhibit remarkable levels of morphological diversification among and within species. Among the passerine birds, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) has become a model system for studies of sperm biology, yet studies of closely related Estrildidae finches remain scarce. Here, we examine sperm morphology in the masked finch (Poephila personata) and place the data into the broader context of passerine sperm morphology using data for an additional 189 species. The masked finch exhibited high levels of within- and among-male variation in total sperm length and in specific sperm components. Furthermore, among-male variance in sperm length was significantly greater in estrildid (N = 12) compared with non-estrildid species (N = 178). We suggest that the high variation in sperm morphology in the masked finch and other estrildid species is likely to be linked to low levels of sperm competition, hence relaxed or weak selection on sperm length, in the clade. Our findings highlight that the highly variable sperm of the masked finch and widely studied zebra finch are 'typical' for estrildid species and stress the relevance of studying groups of closely related species. Finally, we suggest that further studies of Estrildidae will enhance our understanding of sperm diversity and avian diversity more generally.