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Need love problem answers? Go fish!

Biologists study aquarium life to shed light on human mystery

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Anna Nicole Smith, the extra-buxom Playboy pin-up, might have been taking a step up the evolutionary ladder when she married an elderly Texan oil tycoon worth $550 million.

It could have been Smith's innate attraction to good genes, not money, that prompted her to choose so senior a husband -- one who died a year after their 1994 wedding.

Or not.

Chris Beck, who is not a wizened oil tycoon but an Emory University biology lecturer, is trying to figure out how females choose their mates. To do this, he's studying brown-speckled mollies. Those are fish. He wants to find out if females are genetically programmed to chase after bigger and older males.

"Human behavior is a lot more complicated than fish behavior," Beck admits. "But these studies can sort of give the basis for trying to start to understand human behavior."

On the surface, the logic behind Smith's marriage might not appear to warrant much analysis. But her wedding may be the product of a primal urge Beck and co-experimenter Larry Blumer hope to probe. The two men are a few months into what will hopefully be a three-year experiment studying virgin fish in isolation, "experienced" females on the loose and fish thrown into an aquarium-esque menage a trois.

In a lab at Morehouse College, where Blumer teaches biology, 150 fish tanks line the walls. Half of the love experiment is conducted there -- not exactly the champagne suite at the Ritz. Beck and Blumer, while in the lab, plan to conduct three mini-experiments.

In the first, a tank is divided into thirds with Plexiglas partitions. A young female virgin swims in the middle. Experimenters watch. The female meets a large-sized male swimming to her left and a small-sized male swimming to her right. Experimenters note her reaction. She might completely ignore one male but alluringly wiggle her slender body in front of the other, kind of like half of the female patrons on a Saturday night at Karma. The experimenters repeat the process with 40 female fish at various stages of their life -- from the youngest virgins to females who've given birth four times. Beck and Blumer hope to determine whether both virginal and weathered females have a genetic attraction to bigger males.

In the second lab experiment, the females are kept away from males until the females reach old age. The elderly virgin mollies are then placed in the middle of the three-section tank, flanked by the big and small males.

"Previous experiments have shown that, in general, females had preferred larger males," Beck says. "We're trying to figure out is it [her] age that matters or is it [her] experience that matters," he says. He says he expects to find little difference between mollies that are virgins or seasoned, young or old. He says size does matter.

The third lab experiment will determine a female's preference for mates of a certain age. Beck and Blumer will place one female in a tank surrounded by four identical-sized males of varying ages. The experimenters will watch the female to see if she consistently flirts with the oldest male. If she does, genetics play a role, Beck theorizes.

To support their experiments in the lab, Beck and Blumer plan to use a University of Georgia supercomputer to trace 150,000 years of genetic conditioning among mollies. "Basically, evolution occurs in the computer," Beck says. "If we get consistent results between the computer simulations and the experiments with the fish, then we'll know that the assumption that we make in the models is actually what's most likely happening in nature."

Beck reckons that the female fish, through natural selection, will be bred to have a genetic attraction to older males. That's because a female who is attracted to older males passes the best and strongest genes to her offspring. The best-bred females will not look at an older male and see wrinkles and nose hair. She'll sense some impressive DNA.

Beck estimates the total cost of his and Blumer's experiment to be $250,000. They are currently funding it through "bits and pieces of grants."

"Right now, we're sort of doing it on a shoestring," Beck says.

The good thing about mollies is that they don't run up a lot expenses. They only live a year, so Beck and Blumer can follow them throughout their lives. And since the mollies' lives are uncomplicated, Beck and Blumer don't have to worry about the outside factors that can affect a female's desires. The mollies' lives are free of the financial and emotional complexities peculiar to humans.

"The main difference between mollies and humans is that with these mollies," Beck says, "all the males do is provide the sperm and then leave."

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