Imagine overhearing the Powerball lottery winning numbers, but you didn’t know when those numbers would be called — just that at some point in the next 10 years or so, they would be.

Despite the financial cost of playing those numbers daily for that period, the payoff is big enough to make it worthwhile.

Animals that live in highly variable environments play a similar lottery when it comes to their Darwinian fitness, or how well they are able to pass on their genes. In a new study led by the University of Michigan, scientists found that red squirrels that gambled at the game of reproduction outperformed their counterparts, even if it cost them in the short term.

Natural selection favors female squirrels that have large litters in years when food is abundant because they contribute lots of babies to the gene pool, said Lauren Petrullo, lead author and National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow in biopsychology at U-M.

. . .

Petrullo and Ben Dantzer, associate professor of psychology and of ecology and evolutionary biology in LSA, used data collected by the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, a collaborative, 34-year-old field study involving U-M, the University of Colorado, the University of Alberta and the University of Saskatchewan.

Read the complete article in The University Record