I have a downy woodpecker nest in my backyard. It is awesome! For several weeks I have been watching and listening as the parents made the nest, cared for the eggs, fed the babies, and defended the nest. But as I lay in bed a little later this morning I can’t help but wonder isn’t it a poor evolutionary strategy to never be quiet? The babies chirp from the hole non stop, waking up at an unearthly hour and going long past an appropriate bed time for a few week old. Doesn’t this make them more likely to be found? Doesn’t this mean that the parents have to spend more time defending the nest?
Of course, there are many examples of where evolution by natural selection has ended up with some odd and counter intuitive outcomes. Back in my undergrad I did one of my favourite presentations ever. I worked with an awesome group to do research and present on sexual selection. There were four of us, three girls and one guy, so we turned it into a dating show. We made the guy a costume that matched the characteristics of a specific bird and he learned the mating dance which he performed while we rated him. Sexual selection definitely creates some of the oddest traits. When the philosophy is he if he can survive with that he must be made of the right stuff things are bound to get weird. Peacock’s tail anyone.
The one thing that I always had to remind my students of though, is that natural selection doesn’t choose the best strategy, it chooses the best available strategy. Which makes me wonder, what were the other options?