Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sexual Dimorphism in Cop Cars

Sexual dimorphism, as the Encyclopedia Britannica would have it, is:
The differences in appearance between males and females of the same species, as in colour, shape, size, and structure, that are caused by the inheritance of one or the other sexual pattern in the genetic material.
The most common example of sexual dimorphism is, of course, that of the peacock and peahen:

Sexual dimorphism exists in humans as well:

But here, I would like to draw your attention to a less well-known instance of sexual dimorphism: that found in cop cars.

Like many other mammals and birds, the male cop car is larger, stronger, and more brightly colored than the female cop car. Cop cars are a social species, and the distribution of tasks in the species is segregated along sexual lines, reflecting functional differences resulting from their strong dimorphism. Male cop cars perform tasks involving intimidation, overwhelming force, and coordinated aggression on the part of multiple cars. Female cop cars perform "stealth tasks," in which camouflage, subtlety, and surprise are more important than the ability to physically overwhelm an opponent.

When the layperson pictures a cop car, he or she is generally thinking of a male cop car, as in the instance of peacocks and peahens. Even so, a significant difference between male cop car displays remains poorly understood by the general public:

The mating display is more varied in color and flash-pattern than the aggression display. Many people, stumbling on a male cop car performing a mating display, confuse it with an aggression display and react accordingly. This can rapidly turn an opportunity to witness a beautiful cop car mating ritual into an unfortunate interspecies confrontation.

A second confusion is also common: confusing an aggression display related to a "duel" between two would-be alpha bulls, for the predator-prey aggression display which cop cars perform for civilians. For safety's sake, when you see a male cop car performing a display, run through this mental checklist:

1. Are you sure this is an aggression display and not a mating display?

2. If it is an aggression display, is a second male cop car of comparable size and age present and also performing an aggression display?

3. If so, are the cars facing each other? In this case, you are almost certainly lucky enough to be witnessing a "duel" to determine leadership of a clan of cop cars. However, if the two cars are facing you, then they have probably identified you as the natural prey of the cop car.

Only when you have run through this checklist, and come to the certain conclusion that you have been targeted by one or more aggressive male cop cars, should you review the ordinary list of options available in such a situation:

1. Submission.
2. Flight.
3. Fighting the law.

You will want to make your selection based on the specifics of your situation.


  1. Let's not forget the important factor of territory when it comes to dominance and these aggressive males. I have observed an aggressive male encountering prey, but being chased off by another who is the dominant male in that particular territory. Yet in another location, the male who was chased off may regain that dominance. Curious.

    Those females are sneaky and, as is the case in other species, they are able to quickly gain the upper hand in a conflict before you were even aware there was a conflict.

  2. Thanks for sharing your observations, Ed! I didn't treat those issues in the post because I wanted to restrict myself to a basic observation and safety primer. Those interested in a good, but very readable, introduction to the detailed anthropology of cop cars might want to start with Edward O. Wilson's "Journey to the Cop Cars: A Story of Scientific Exploration."

  3. Wilson's a hack. His theories about the regulation of cop car societies by complex radio communication are so ludicrous that I can't take his thoughts on cop car social structure seriously.

  4. Well look, Ed, let's be charitable. Nobody can support some of the wilder speculations he indulged in late in his career, but his early work revolutionized the field. For instance, I'm sure you're aware that he was the first to propose sexual dimorphism of the sensory organs in cop cars, with the male cop car relying more on a "radar" sense, similar to sonar in bats, to locate and determine the velocity of fast-moving prey, and the female cop car showing specialized organs for sensing the chemical and thermal signatures of larger stationary prey, such as meth labs, illicit greenhouses, and high-traffic corners. Throw out his last twenty years of work if you like - but when we talk about the anthropology of cop cars, we're basically talking about Wilson.

  5. If you are driving, and a cop car approaches you from behind performing the mating display, you are indeed about to get screwed. I have experienced it personally.

  6. Fred - That very thing happened to me one time while I was innocently doing 87 across I-40 in Texas! I suppose it was like getting molested by a dolphin, but less fun.

    I haven't forgotten about your other comment, by the way! Only, between you and Chris - it's almost like writing another post, writing a proper reply. And you know how long it takes me to write posts...

  7. Don't feel obligated to write detailed replies on that other post. It touched on fascinating philosophical issues, and stimulated a lot of interesting thoughts. But I began feeling that we were hijacking your blog, turning it into a philosophy debate. Perhaps there's a better place for all that, and perhaps new posts should take precedence over discussion of metaphysical questions that will never be settled!

  8. That's very nice of you, Fred, but I figure, what kind of a host ignores the people who are good enough to come to his party? I think I even wrote something about that in the little mission statement-y thing in my blog profile. Moreover, I like getting thoughtful comments, and I don't see how I can expect to keep getting them if I don't reply in kind! So I will get to it; I even have one or two thoughts. But I will definitely prioritize new posts... Thanks for everything, I really enjoy reading what you have to say.

  9. ...and of course the same thing exists in paintings. Here is an example of the male...

  10. Well I'll be damned! You're right! And nice work...