‘New guy’ fly fights change social environments

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When a male fruit fly gets aggressive, he rears up on his back four legs and batters his foe with the two in front. The encounter doesn’t seem to damage either fly, but what happens next offers clues to social evolution.

Rice University evolutionary biologist Julia Saltz observed fruit-fly fights every day for months to find out how the creatures’ genotypes—the genetic code that determines what they are—affect their phenotypes—the characteristics they present to their fellow flies.

Her work bolsters the longstanding hypothesis in psychology that individuals are not merely subject to their social environments, but choose and create them through their interactions.

By placing genetically distinct variants of flies in various and sometimes uncomfortable situations, Saltz observed their behavior under stress and how stress altered the behavior of interacting individuals—a process called social-environment construction—when the “stressed” fly was moved to a new group for further observation.

“The main takeaway is that individuals’ behaviors affect their social environments,” she says. “In other words, when you pick your friends, it matters to you and it affects both what happens in the group and your behavior at a later time.”

Fruit flies maneuver like tiny fighter jets

Saltz, an assistant professor of biosciences, says few have undertaken direct studies of social-environment construction because of the difficulty involved. “You can’t do it with people,” she says, noting that it would be “unwise” to send someone into a room of subjects and have that person punch someone.

But fruit flies are a worthy substitute, as both their genetic traits and environments can be manipulated easily, Saltz says.

The new guy in the group

Saltz, sole author of the paper in the journal Heredity, observed focal males—her primary subjects—either alone or with small groups of 2 to 8 fruit flies over two days in each experiment. (They totaled 1,300 flies over many months.) She placed genetically identical pairs in either their preferred or nonpreferred environments, either large or small groups, and measured their aggressive behaviors. She notes different genotypes of fly have different group-size preferences, allowing for variation among the experiments.

In the first stage of the study, she determined the preferences of focal males by genotype for group size. In the second stage, over hundreds of experiments, she put individual focal males into various-sized groups of “stimulus” flies.

“For day one, I put a ‘genotype one’ focal male with a group of flies, and a ‘genotype two’ with a replica group with the same sex ratio, number, and genotype, reared under standard lab conditions,” she says. “That way, I knew the social environment was the same for both focal males. If there was something different about how the groups behaved, it had to be due to the genotype of that one extra male.

“Arguably, the focal male would influence the behavior of other individuals in the group, which is what we saw,” Saltz says.

Aggression in the ‘arena’

She says males in their preferred groups were attacked more frequently than those in nonpreferred groups. “We don’t totally know why that is, but we can say for sure the combination of that male’s genotype and its preference caused the other males to act more aggressively toward it.”

On day two, Saltz took the focal males—dabbed with yellow paint to identify them—from their initial groups and put each with a single “naïve” male in a petri dish “arena” and found the previous day’s experience made them less aggressive.

Brain cells turn male flies into fighters

That may show what Saltz called the “loser” effect, in which males who lose an initial encounter are less aggressive in subsequent encounters. “That seems to be true here, except that there’s no good definition of losing,” she says. “That’s why I like to think of it as being attacked more often.”

Saltz notes the flies display other types of aggression, and they may also pass chemical signals that are relevant in social environments. But lunging attacks were easiest to measure.

“It’s an open question of how damaging aggression is to flies, but they seem totally fine after, so it’s not like they can kill another male and then get all the food,” she says. “There are subcomponents of aggression that are slightly ambiguous, but for this study I measured lunging, which doesn’t look like any other behavior.

How the fruit fly’s tiny brain finds food so well

“The male actually rears up. The front two legs and part of its body go up and it slams its legs onto another male. It’s not ambiguous, and a male can only lunge at one other male at a time, so you know exactly who was being aggressive and who was the recipient.”

Saltz says future studies involving larger sets and more genotypes should help show how behavior and evolutionary fitness are affected by group size and composition. She also notes studying fruit flies for two days out of their average 70-day lifespans (for lab-reared flies) is inherently limited, because it doesn’t account for long-term or permanent effects.

The National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and John S. Dunn Foundation supported the research.

Source: Rice University