The Blame Game & the Mysteries of “Suicidal Reproduction”

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October 9, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich

marsupial

Image from the New Scientist. Credit: Esther Beaton/Wild Pictures

A study, published through the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on October 7th has been making its rounds in the news over the past 24 hours. It’s called “Sperm competition drives the evolution of suicidal reproduction in mammals.” Authors Diana Fisher, Christopher Dickman, Menna Jones, and Simon Blomberg argue, in the report, that their study proves that “synchronized suicidal reproduction” in male mammals (often explained as altruism, or kin-selection, in the face of reduced access to food), can actually be explained as sexual selection on the part of individuals and “self-sacrifice.” The study has been covered by (among others) major outlets such as the BBC, the CBC, and NBC.

Unsurprisingly, the story is also padded – in this coverage – with loaded gender stereotypes. Douglas Main, at NBC, describes male marsupials as creatures who “live fast and die young.” How daring. Colin Barras’ report at The New Scientist announces, in the first graph, that “It may be the female of the species that are driving this self-destructive behavior.” One of the key factors in this “suicidal reproduction”, he continues, is the fact that “the females are highly promiscuous.” The males, however, are  described as “vulnerable” and he ends with a quote from author Diana Fisher, who notes that she, “feel[s] sorry for the poor males.”

It might also be worth noting that none of the headlines address this phenomenon as “semelparity”. The term appears only later in the story, if at all. Instead, the story is touted as a wild example of “suicidal sex”, playing up the associations their human readers will inevitably draw between suicide, desperation, and depression… associations that the study doesn’t indicate are present in the life of these non-placental mammals.

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