The Edmond Sun

February 15, 2013

Happy hunters should swim with ugly Guppies

Mike Hinkle
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — Two news items this week (which, of course, coincides with Valentine’s Day) had me meditating on the subject of courtship. But first, let’s revisit an old story.

Many years ago, an attractive young widow, Martha Skelton, excited the interest of a number of prominent young suitors. One day, two of them decided to call on her together. When they arrived, they were surprised to hear the sound of violin music accompanied by harpsichord and a lady singing. The two gentlemen, without saying a word, remounted their horses and rode back home. You see, Thomas Jefferson was the only young man in the region who could play the violin. And, as his two discouraged rivals knew, if Jefferson was in the contest they had no chance. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

So here’s the news this week touching on the subject of courtship.

Item No. 1: Britain’s Royal Society published a report this week summarizing the results of research carried out by Italy’s University of Padua. In a series of experiments, two “attractive” female guppies were placed in transparent partitions at either end of an aquarium. “Bachelorette number 1” (as she was referred to in the AP story) was positioned between two “attractive” brightly colored male guppies while “Bachelorette number 2” was between a pair of “uglier, drab colored fish.” The researchers dropped a male guppy into the middle of the tank and studied his behavior. The newcomer had three choices: [a] he could refuse to play the game and just stay in the middle where he was; [b] he could puff out his little chest and challenge the dandies, or [c] he could ease down to “Bachelorette number 2’s” end of the tank and take his chances against the easier competition.

To no one’s surprise, most of the newcomers elected the smoother road. After all, why take on Thomas Jefferson when Pee Wee Herman is the alternative? Overall, the newcomers spent about 62 percent of their time at “Bachelorette number two’s” end of the tank. But here’s another interesting tidbit, the uglier the newcomer (the scale used to determine the degree of guppy ugliness was absent from the AP story) the more likely he was to avoid “the studs” at “Bachelorette number one’s” end.

The researchers’ conclusion was summed up in the AP headline: “Guppies use ugly friends to seem more attractive.” How could you not read a story with the headline like this?

Item No. 2: A story posted Feb. 12 in the Science Daily News concerns the latest research on the rare and exotic hihi bird of New Zealand. According to the story, little male hihi chicks provided with a diet rich in carotenoids while they’re in the nest, grow up to be adults with more colorful and attractive breeding feathers. This, of course, puts them at a competitive advantage when their rivals are hampered by dowdier, less impressive decorations resulting from a carotenoid-poor diet. The conclusion is inescapable. For hihi birds, the earlier you start preparing for courtship, the better.

A few words of caution are in order. It would be presumptuous and premature for me to suggest that the findings in these two studies have any real useful application to the courtship practices of human beings. After all, how could I credibly advise any eager young suitor to pattern his (or her) behavior on the courtship practices of guppies? It would be equally absurd to suggest that young humans can better their chances in the competition for a suitable mate by following the dietary practices of the hihi bird. Consequently, we should be careful not to over-read and misapply these studies.

However, as a senior male who has obviously done quite well in the competition for a desirable life partner, I am qualified to offer some sound advice historically and scientifically proven to provide an edge. First, learn to play the violin. I personally skipped this one and it was almost disastrous. Lucky for me, none of my competitors could play the violin either. So, I caught a break there.

Next, be sure to eat a diet rich in carotenoids. Don’t panic if you’re getting a late start. While I’m not guaranteeing this is the case, I suspect where carotenoids are concerned, better late than never.

Finally, be careful in your choice of friends. Birds of a feather flock together. If you lay down with dogs you get up with fleas. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but it’s sound advice just the same. So, to you all, a belated happy Valentine’s Day and happy hunting. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.


MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.