Evolutionary Ecologist Matthew Gage Dies at 55

The University of East Anglia researcher was best known for his contributions to the study of sexual selection, particularly post-copulatory sperm competition.

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Amanda is an assistant editor at The Scientist, where she oversees the Scientist to Watch, Foundations, and Short Lit columns. When not editing, she produces original reporting for the magazine and website. Amanda has a master's in marine science from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and a master's in science communication from UC Santa Cruz.

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Apr 20, 2022

Matthew Gage, an evolutionary ecologist whose work informed the fields of sexual selection, sperm competition, and gamete biology, has died. While the cause of his death has not been publicly released, an obituary written by his University of East Anglia colleagues and published in Animal Behavior noted that Gage downplayed his illness and continued working until shortly before his death on January 15 of this year. He was 55.

A photo of Matthew Gage sitting outside
Matthew Gage
Ramakrishnan Vasudeva

“Matt never left anything to chance and was a thorough experimentalist and converted those experimental findings into compelling, interesting stories,” Ramakrishnan Vasudeva, a postdoc in Gage’s lab, tells The Scientist in an email. “I vividly remember even during [his] final experiment, [in] late 2021, his enthusiasm never waned through those difficult final days, his curiosity was always shining through, studying the finer details from our results.”

Gage spent decades of his career using fish and insects—particularly the red flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum)—as model systems to probe sexual selection. After completing a bachelor’s in zoology at the University of Manchester in 1989, he stayed on, studying under sexual biologists Robin Baker and Mark Bellis. For his dissertation, Gage researched the mechanisms of sperm competition dynamics in a range of insect species, producing at least two additional, notable papers that revealed for the first time how male insects adjust ejaculate size depending on their socio-sexual environment and their perceived risk of competition. According to his obituary, “this was an astonishing finding at the time but one that has now been repeated across a vast number of taxa.”

See “Promiscuous Mice Have Extra-Fast Sperm

Following his graduation with a PhD in 1992, Gage received a fellowship to carry out research at the University of Liverpool, working alongside another early proponent of sexual selection, Geoff Parker. Together, and in conjunction with many collaborators, the two produced several influential papers establishing fundamental aspects of sperm competition. Gage’s work expanded to include fish and mammals, although insects remained a favorite system of his. In a broad study of butterflies, he found that sperm evolve to be longer—an energetically expensive process—in species with higher sperm competition, while in another study of the moth Plodia interpunctella, he noted that higher population density prompts males to disperse rather than invest in reproduction.

In 2002, Gage joined the faculty at the University of East Anglia, where he remained for the rest of his career. His lab continued to focus on sexual selection and postcopulatory sperm competition, but in recent years, Gage had started to study how these processes might play out on larger scales. In papers published since 2015, he noted how mating patterns and sexual selection could guard against extinction. One study, published in Nature, involved Gage’s lab breeding multiple colonies of red flour beetles under varying levels of sexual selection in order to reveal how the evolutionary history of sexual selection affects species at a population level. The group found that lineages evolving under histories of strong sexual selection were able to persist, whereas lines experiencing weak histories of selection went extinct. These findings demonstrated the importance of sex in removing deleterious mutations despite its energetic costliness. More recently, Gage conducted lab-based experiments that suggested climate change may have sublethal effects on sperm that could compromise populations. 

See “Women’s Cervical Mucus Prefers Some Sperm Over Others

Alongside his scientific findings, Gage is also remembered for his leadership and mentorship. He served as treasurer for the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour beginning in 2012, leaving the society in “a very strong financial position” to support its members’ career progression, according to the obituary written by his colleagues.

In another obituary, published in Evolution, several members of Gage’s lab recall his generosity and good humor. “Though his untimely passing has shocked everyone within the community, Matt leaves behind a deep and rich legacy at the University of East Anglia where he worked for two decades, in the research fields which he drove forward, and in the minds of his many students and mentees who have gone on to diverse success, inspired by his passion for science and his easy style,” they write. Outside of his science, Gage had unique hobbies, they add: his passion for the natural world made him a world-renowned falconer and falcon breeder. “That he climbed to the very top of such disparate disciplines speaks to his great strength of character and gentle charisma, which will be sorely missed by all who knew him.”

Gage is survived by his wife, Silvie, and their two children.