Is there anyone left in the public spotlight who doesn’t cheat on their supposed one and only? It may not seem like it with so many formerly acclaimed celebs, sports stars, and politicians—from Kobe Bryant and Eliot Spitzer to David Letterman and now Tiger Woods—going up in smoke with the fiery wreckage of sex scandals. What is going on? Could this rash of infidelities be linked to climate change?
Well boys, I’m afraid the evidence is still a bit thin. Unless, perhaps, you invoke the saltmarsh sparrow.
For the past seven years, University of Connecticut ornithologist Chris Elphick and his team of field biologists have been wading through the muck of coastal Connecticut marshes to spy on about half the world’s remaining population of these little grey and brown birds. The saltmarsh sparrows (formerly saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow) are unique among songbirds because they are not monogamous. Instead, they mate with multiple partners. In fact, these two-timers even continue the charade when kids come along, with females often tending the nests of several different dads.
Researchers theorize that the sparrows’ risqué behavior has to do with how rich their marsh environs are, making it possible for moms to leave their nests and find a meal for the kids without any help from their father. Thus, the thinking goes, females have the freedom to play the field. The birds’ promiscuous behavior is likely further encouraged by their nests’ precarious proximity to tide lines that regularly whoosh through the marsh grasses and wipe out nests. When that happens, the females are left to seek multiple males and re-nest in a desperate scramble to reproduce.
Surveillance of the sparrows’ wantonness over the past two summers revealed an extreme level of promiscuity among saltmarsh sparrows, suprpising Elphick and his students, reports the Hartford Courant. With data for 60 nests and DNA samples from more than 600 birds, they charted the paternity of nearly all the chicks that hatched during that period. Ninety seven percent of the chicks had mothers who were sitting on the eggs of more than one father. And in more than a third of the nests, every egg belonged to a different dad. (And you thought Tiger was busy.)
"The saltmarsh sparrow has far higher rates of promiscuity than almost any other species studied,” Elphick told the Courant. “We were all shocked."
Elphick theorizes that frequent spring flooding is wiping out whole saltmarsh sparrow colonies, forcing the females into a frenzy of breeding and re-nesting (making them less choosy about mates). Thus having multiple interludes with different males may be increasing the famales’ chances of getting a random sample of the best genes available. Elphick says the sparrows’ manic nesting habits are one of the best ways to measure the health of dwindling salt marshes that are being increasingly impacted by rising sea levels.
As for whether there is a link between climate change and licentiousness in Tigers and other kindred two-legged creatures, there simply isn’t enough science to say.