Of the many sexual problems out there, few are as devastating as failure to find a sex partner. In many animals, this issue can prove a particular challenge to non-alpha males.
What's a small, unassuming guy to do when he's got to compete with bigger and stronger males, or ones who've hoarded all the acorns? The fact that non-alpha males exist in so many species suggests they've hit on ways to get sex and pass their genes down.
One of the most common strategies employed by various types of fish, insects and mammals involves sneaking around. Usually smaller and less equipped for a fight than alpha males, "sneakers" spread their genes by charming females, racing in when alpha males are fighting each other, posing as females, or some combination of all these. (The official scientific name for this type of male, coined by British biologist John Maynard Smith, starts with sneaky and ends with a word that starts with F.)
Sometimes a species splits into two different-looking males, with the sneakers taking on female markings or coloration or pheromones. They're nature's metrosexuals.
But something even more complicated was going on in the hills of central California, where the side-blotched lizard split into three types of males, orange, yellow and blue. "That had to mean something," said biologist Barry Sinervo of the University of California, Santa Cruz. "It took me about five years to figure it out."
First there are the orange lizards, "big bruisers who fight over territory," he says. Then there are smaller yellow males. "They're the sneakers."
Yellow males look just like females but the females don't seem to mind, so they get lots of sex. This disguise allows yellow males to sneak by the alpha males, who sometimes try to mount them but at least rarely try to beat them up.
Harder to explain were small blue males. They can't beat up the alpha males, nor can they fool them like the yellow transvestites. Sinervo found that to get any sex, blue males had to pair up and cooperate, one monopolizing a female and the other chasing away sneaker yellow males. The blue males never cheat on each other, Sinervo says. The one that plays the wingman is ever loyal.
Some of this may sound somewhat familiar to anyone who has read about the human male pickup culture described by writer-turned-pickup-artist Neil Strauss in The Game. The pickup artists borrowed the term wingman from the fighter pilot lingo popularized in the movie Top Gun.
In human pickup culture, guys may trade off the wingman role or may decide the question on the spur of the moment, depending on who takes a particular fancy to a woman. The wingman is crucial for distracting and/or entertaining female friends, male rivals, or even a woman's boyfriend while the pickup artist works at getting the target's phone number.
Both the blue lizards and gaming guys sometimes run into trouble when dealing with alpha males. Strauss' book describes several severe beatings disciples of "The Game" endured at the hands of alpha males.
For lizards, a blue-orange fight can end in death. "The blue male will give up his life for another male," Sinervo says, a finding he published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The competition for sex among these three kinds of male lizards can be seen as a rock-paper-scissors game, he says. The yellow males can triumph over the orange alphas by disguising themselves as females. The blue males can triumph over the yellows through cooperation, but since they aren't in disguise, they tend to lose out to the orange guys.
That kind of pattern shows up in a few other species, Sinervo says, but what's really rare in nature is the altruism. Nonhuman animals rarely sacrifice themselves unless they stand to gain in some other way or they benefit a close relative.
So perhaps in a figurative sense at least, these lizards are not as cold-blooded as they appear. And perhaps neither are the pickup artists.