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Strutting for Science

Harry Dayantis

Michael Faraday or Michael Flatley? Science or dance? The latest Science video competition shows that the two go hand in hand...

A creative video on sperm competition [watch the video], which sees swimming cap-clad sperm chasing a water-borne egg through a lake, scooped top prize in Science magazine's 2013 Dance your PhD contest.

The film was created by Dr Cedric Tan from Oxford University's Department of Zoology, who has previously won the 2012 NESCent Evolution Video Contest and the Biology category of Science's 2011 Dance your PhD contest.

I caught up with Cedric to find out how he took his ideas from the lab to the lake...

OxSciBlog: Could you tell us a little more about the concepts shown in the film?
Cedric Tan: There were two main ideas in this film. First, a male invests more sperm in the females that have mated with his brother. This was an interesting finding in the red jungle fowl where females mate with multiple males, creating episodes of competition between sperm of different males. Second, the female ejects a higher proportion of sperm from the brother of the first male mate and favours the sperm of the non-brother, facilitating a higher fertility by the non-brother's sperm.

OSB: Why are non-brother sperm more successful, and are there evolutionary reasons for this?
CT: The non-brother sperm is probably more successful as a result of female preference and ejection of a larger proportion of sperm from any of the brothers. We are not sure why females behave as such but a probable reason is that the females are mating with the male that is different from the brothers in order to increase the genetic diversity of the offspring.

OSB: What challenges did you face trying to explain these concepts through dance?
CT: A major challenge is definitely the fact that dance is a non-spoken art and we had to use our bodies to convey the scientific idea. However, through movements inspired by chickens and sperm, we were able to illustrate sexual behaviour of the chicken and some interesting characteristics of sperm biology.

OSB: Could you tell us a bit about the accompanying music?
CT: The two original music and lyrics pieces were written by Dr Stuart Wigby, my former supervisor. The first piece 'Animal Love' is about the variety of sexual behaviour across different animal species. The second piece 'Scenester' is a piece about a girl who keeps changing her ways and males trying to keep up with her, which is especially apt for illustrating sperm competition.

OSB: How long did it take to plan, choreograph, shoot and edit?
CT: This idea was conceived last summer after I finished the previous video on 'Less Attractive Friends'. However I only started in June 2013 to plan, with the help of my Producer Sozos Michaelides and co-producer Kiyono Sekii. Choreography and training of the dancers was done with my co-choreographer Hannah Moore and lasted 4 weeks. Choreography came along quite readily as I was working simultaneously on my field experiments, in which I was deriving inspiration from the chickens and the sperm under the microscope. Hannah also worked very closely with me on synthesising sperm and chicken movements with sports actions.

After the intense training and for the following three weeks, the Director of Photography, Xinyang Hong, shot the dancing at various places, from Port Meadows to Hinksey Lake. I took about 3 weeks to edit the videos and that was a pain but looking at the outcome, I must say it was all worth it!

OSB: Do you have any plans for another video next year?
CT: Yes of course! It will sexier, stickier and sizeably bigger, and in the style of a musical. But the idea is a secret... I am already excited about creating this new piece!

OSB: Finally, how did you convince so many people to dress up as sperm and jump into a freezing lake?
CT: It took lots of bribing with food. Kiyono also religiously brought flasks of hot drinks for the dancers every time we had pool/lake filming. As for the costume, many of the sperm complained a lot, I just had to buy more food.

The video was funded by Green Templeton College, Oxford, The Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology and the European Society for Evolutionary Biology.