Jerram Brown Checks the DNA to See Why Boy and Girl Birds Flock Together

Jerram Brown

A serious handicap to understanding animal social systems has been the lack of accurate information on the true genetic parents of the young.

"Students of natural selection do not agree on the way in which selection has determined the natural mating preferences of wild animals," says Jerram Brown of the Department of Biological Sciences. "For example, it is unclear which male qualities are preferred by females and why. Do they prefer males who will feed their young; or males whose genes will cause the offspring to be more vigorous and competitive; or both?"

To study this problem in nature, a more accurate means of identification of fathers was necessary. And now, with DNA microsatellites, that tool is available for investigators such as Brown. A two-year grant from the National Science Foundation totaling more than $100,000 is aiding Brown in his purpose.

The primary object of study will be the Mexican Jay, an especially suitable subject because several breeders of each sex occur in virtually every group, and the species is already known to show complex quasi-monogamous mating."

"With accurate information about actual genetic fathers," said Brown, "we will then characterize them according to their role in feeding young, their dominance rank, and other qualities that might be correlated with competitiveness in their offspring.

"Our studies will be among the first to provide accurate information on the qualities of males actually chosen by females in a complex avian social system in which female choices are no constrained by a system in which territories are owned exclusively by pairs."

Brown joined the University faculty in 1978 as a full professor after 16 on the faculty of the University of Rochester. Nationally known for nearly two decades for his studies of the Mexican Jay, he was elected in 1988 to the rank of Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the leading general science organization in America.

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