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X-STEM – Extreme STEM Symposium

Dr. MarleneZuk

Nominated by:
Marelene Zuk Univ. of Minn Logo X-STEM 2014
Inside the Secret Life of Insects and Other Evolutionary Mysteries!


The work of Marlene Zuk, prominent evolutionary biologist and author, has taken her on some interesting paths in evolutionary science -- including studying birds, red jungle fowl (the ancestors of chickens), the lifestyle of cavemen, parasites, and insects.


"My work involves using invertebrate systems to understand how natural and sexual selection shape the behavior, life history, and morphology of animals," says Marlene of her research at the University of Minnesota's Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. This includes studying how such factors influence animal communication, sexual selection and mate choice, and the effects of parasites on host ecology, evolution and behavior.


"Currently, I and others in my lab are studying the conflict between sexual and natural selection in Pacific field crickets (Teleogryllus oceanicus) in Hawaii which are subject to an acoustically-orienting parasitic fly." This fly, she explains, uses the male cricket's calling song to find a host -- resulting in natural selection influencing, and thereby reducing, the same signal that sexual selection is expected to enhance. In fact, in some of the populations of the crickets, 50-90% of the males now exhibit a wing mutation that renders them silent, protecting them from the fly but posing a problem in mate attraction, she says.


Marlene's interest in insects goes back to her early childhood and only increased as she got older, leading her to a career in biology. "I've always loved insects because they are so different from humans, and I keep finding interesting, complex things about them," says Marlene. Once you know what insects are actually doing, she adds, "things will never be the same."


She is especially known to the lay public for her compelling books on insects, insect behavior, and parasites and their role in disease and evolution, which include: "Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World" ( 2011), and "Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites that Make Us Who We Are" (2007). She has also written articles on similar topics for such media outlets as the Los Angeles Times, The Scientist, Huffington Post, and Wall Street Journal.


In addition, her recent book, "Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live", has been the source of considerable national attention and debate on another topic: the current yearnings for our Paleolithic (caveman) days. Using evolutionary scientific evidence and discussion, Marlene dismantles the myths and so-called pseudoscience behind today's popular belief in such practices as the paleo diet, paleo exercise regimen and the structure of the paleo family.


Says Marlene: "A lot of what ties together the cricket research and this new book is an interest in how fast evolution happens, and even more important, why it's sometimes slow and sometimes fast."

She explains that all organisms are engaged in a never-ending attempt to do the best they can in a changing environment, and evolution never yields either perfection or a final product.


Marlene earned her Bachelor's degree in Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and after graduating, she spent three years teaching and writing. She then went on to the University of University of Michigan where she received a Ph.D. studying parasites and the behavior of crickets. In addition, she completed her postdoctoral work at the University of New Mexico, working on red jungle fowl, and afterwards joined the University of California, Riverside, where she served as professor of Biology before coming to the University of Minnesota.

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