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Meet the Lizards Playing a 15 Million-Year-Old Game of Genetic Rock-Paper-Scissors

Rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, and paper beats rock. Simple enough, right? Well, the rules might be easy to understand, but if your ability to mate depended on the outcome, you might find the game a little more stressful. Kind of like how it is for these lizards who have been playing their very own genetic version of the game for millions of years.

This video from Deep Look, a beautiful series from KQED Science and PBS Digital Studios shot in ultra-high definition and focused on the “very small, very beautiful, and often very creepy,” introduces us to the 15 million-year-old mating game of Rock-Paper-Scissors being played by male side-blotched lizards.

Found in the deserts of the Western U.S., the side-blotched lizard gets its name from the little patch on its side (genius!). While all the same species, they come in three different colors, orange, blue, and yellow, and their distinct colors also dictate their methods (or “tricks”) of mating, which is how they have found themselves in a “perpetual, unwinnable cycle” that they have “been raging for millennia.”

Here’s the simple breakdown:

  • The “bigger, stronger” orange ones are the “brutes,” who control and aggressively defend areas where they have lots of females.
  • Yellows are the sneaks, who don’t bother trying to protect any territory or mates, but instead covertly move in and mate with females that are unguarded.
  • The blues believe in monogamy, and only have one mate who they give all of their protection and energy to.

So while they don’t have to decide what they want to “throw” like a Roshambo player, they are still stuck in an evolutionary version of the game. Because:

  • Yellow beats Orange: Orange can’t possibly guard all of their mates at all times, meaning the sneaky yellow lizard can come in and “steal” a mate.
  • Orange beats Blue: The bigger, stronger orange is too much for the blue guys to defeat.
  • Blue beats Yellow: The attention being paid to the single mate of a blue lizard means the yellows can’t get by them.

It’s an unwinnable game, where each color has an opponent it can’t beat. However, in some ways it means they all win the bigger game of survival, because they can’t be wiped out/out-reproduced by a superior color.

It’s a fine-evolutionary balancing act, but one that could potentially end if not for the re-balancing done by the females. In case one color falls behind the others, the female lizards begin choosing the rarer color as their mate of choice for the season. Without that, the species would potentially evolve, but instead it’s on year 15 million of the game, which is way more interesting anyway.

Which color would you like to be if you had to pick? My girlfriend said I have to say blue, but tell us your choice in the comments below.

Images: Deep Look


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