Look like a punk and live longer: When American coot chicks don King's Road plumage, it's not to rebel against their parents but to survive. Mark Pagels explains

YOU PROBABLY do not have spikey orange hair, and even if you did, it is unlikely that your parents would show the enthusiasm for it as do the parents of American coot chicks. Their young sport the equivalent of punk gear - but not to attract other punks or to get photographed by tourists in the King's Road. Rather, the chicks wear this garb to compete with their brothers and sisters for parental attention.

Adult American coots are sooty black birds somewhat smaller than a duck, and, like similar British coots, inhabit streams and lake shores. Coot chicks, however, emerge from their shells with bright orange plumes around their necks and shoulders that stand out sharply against their darker natal down. These plumes make the chicks more conspicuous to predators and so represent a risky choice of attire for an already vulnerable creature.

Recently, a team of Canadian researchers, reporting in the science journal Nature, uncovered the reason for this risky choice of plumage. The chicks' lives depend upon it: American coot parents have favourites among their chicks and feed them more. These favourites are those chicks that produce the bright orange plumage.

Why do coot parents have such eccentric tastes? One possibility that will seem all too familiar to human parents is that it is the parents that must put up with the chicks' tastes, not the other way around. Coot chicks gradually lose their orange plumage as they progress towards fledging, which occurs at about three weeks. Feeding a chick more may hasten the day it fledges and thereby reduce the risk of its being preyed upon.

The chicks may be employing their bright plumage as a form of blackmail, to get their parents to feed them. Their strategy mimics that of the child who holds its breath to get its parents' attention. The difference, of course, is that holding one's breath is generally self-correcting (but try telling a parent), while playing with one's life to blackmail parents may not be: the first chick to attempt this was likely whisked off by a predator. Blackmail as a strategy, if it ever evolved, probably quickly died out.

A more plausible reason is that American coots, like many bird species, practise bet-hedging: they lay more eggs than they normally can bring up. In a bountiful year, the payoff to laying a large clutch of eggs is high: the parents produce many young, thereby banking lots of Darwinian currency. But because eggs themselves are not so costly for parents to produce, losing a few in bad years is, in theory, more than compensated by the occasional good year. Thus, to keep up with their neighbours in the reproductive stakes, coots are forced regularly to confront something of an avian Sophie's Choice.

This in turn has profound implications for the chicks. Six is a common clutch size, but the chosen few may number only two or three. At the expense of their siblings, chicks must actively convince their parents that they should not be among the dispossessed. Thus life for young coots unfolds in a ruthlessly Hobbesian state of Nature, in which brother and sister fight each other to inherit the rights to the next generation.

Bright orange ruffs are the strategy that the coot chicks have hit upon to secure that inheritance. If these plumes are costly for chicks to produce - because they divert energy that might otherwise have gone into growth, or because they increase the risk of being preyed upon - and only the healthiest chicks can produce them, then the plumes may be a reliable indicator of a chick's worth. Indeed, by choosing something so frivolous and risky, the chick is effectively saying to its parents that it is of such high calibre that it can afford to handicap itself. The worth or quality that it is advertising may be some aspect of its health or condition, or that it has good genes, or both.

In a different setting, but illustrating the same principle, individuals of some bird species sing when being chased by a predator. Their songs are not designed to warn others of the approach of the predator, but to show their assailant that they are so fit they can afford to waste precious breath while being chased for their life. (Such signals are kept honest by their consequences.) Being a coot chick is akin to living in a welfare state with a form of inverted means-testing: the most fit, and therefore the least needy, receive the most aid, while the runts are overlooked.

If the coots' formula for parental attention offends your sensibilities, you will find little comfort by retreating to the special place in nature that humans are meant to occupy. Anthropologists report that some human groups regularly exercise choice among offspring, routinely favouring the strongest over the weakest. Among human groups, neglect of less-fit children can extend from simple favouritism to abandonment, to fostering out, and even to infanticide. In some groups, handicapped offspring were once (and may still be) abandoned, and in a practice redolent of bet-hedging, a Khoisan- speaking hunter-gatherer group routinely practises infanticide on one of a pair of twins.

Still, human offspring, by dint of arriving typically in small 'clutches' of one, avoid much of the 'nature red in tooth and claw' that might otherwise be directed their way. Having one child at a time, and having so few compared to other animals, means that we tend to invest heavily, if not always equally, in each. This may be why, apart from the occasional adolescent or even adult deviation along the King's Road, the nascent human tends not to appear with spikey orange hair.

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone