Sexual selection

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This article is about the evolutionary concept. For the artificial selection of the sex of offspring, see sex selection.
A leucistic Indian peacock displaying sexual ornamentation
Reindeer with antlers

Sexual selection is a mode of natural selection where typically members of one gender choose mates of the other gender to mate with, called intersexual selection, and where females normally do the choosing, and competition between members of the same gender to sexually reproduce with members of the opposite sex, called intrasexual selection. These two forms of selection mean that some individuals have better reproductive success than others within a population either from being sexier or preferring sexier partners to produce offspring.[1][2] For instance in the breeding season sexual selection in frogs occurs with the males first gathering at the water's edge and croaking. The females then arrive and choose the males with the deepest croaks and best territories. Generalizing, males benefit from frequent mating and monopolizing access to a group of fertile females. Females have a limited number of offspring they can have and they maximize the return on the energy they invest in reproduction.

First articulated by Charles Darwin [3] who described it as driving speciation[citation needed] and that many organisms had evolved features whose function was deleterious to their individual survival, and then developed by Ronald Fisher in the early 20th century. Sexual selection can lead typically males to extreme efforts to demonstrate their fitness to be chosen by females, producing secondary sexual characteristics, such as ornate bird tails like the peacock plumage, or the antlers of deer, or the manes of lions, caused by a positive feedback mechanism known as a Fisherian runaway, where the passing on of the desire for a trait in one sex is as important as having the trait in the other sex in producing the runaway effect. Although the sexy son hypothesis indicates that females would prefer male sons, Fisher's principle explains why the sex ratio is 1:1 almost without exception. Sexual selection is also found in plants and fungi.

The maintenance of sexual reproduction in a highly competitive world has long been one of the major mysteries of biology given that asexual reproduction can reproduce much more quickly as 50% of offspring are not males, unable to produce offspring themselves. However, research published in 2015 indicates that sexual selection can explain the persistence of sexual reproduction.[4]

In organisms[edit]

SEM image of lateral view of a love dart of the land snail Monachoides vicinus. The scale bar is 500 μm (0.5 mm).
Human spermatazoa can reach 250 million in a single ejaculation
A male bed bug (Cimex lectularius) traumatically inseminates a female bed bug (top). The female's ventral carapace is visibly cracked around the point of insemination.
Victorian cartoonists quickly picked up on Darwin's ideas about display in sexual selection. Here he is fascinated by the apparent steatopygia in the latest fashion.
Illustration from The Descent of Man showing the tufted coquette Lophornis ornatus: female on left, ornamented male on right.

Sexual selection has been observed to occur in plants, animals and fungi.[5] In certain hermaphroditic snail and slug species of molluscs the throwing of love darts is a form of sexual selection.[6] Certain male insects of the lepidoptera order of insects cement the vaginal pores of their females.[citation needed]

Today, biologists say that certain evolutionary traits can be explained by intraspecific competition - competition between members of the same species - distinguishing between competition before or after sexual intercourse.

  • Before copulation, intrasexual selection - usually between males - may take the form of male-to-male combat. Also, intersexual selection, or mate choice, occurs when females choose between male mates.[7] Traits selected by male combat are called secondary sexual characteristics (including horns, antlers, etc.), which Darwin described as "weapons", while traits selected by mate (usually female) choice are called "ornaments". Due to their sometimes greatly exaggerated nature, secondary sexual characteristics can prove to be a hindrance to an animal, thereby lowering its chances of survival. For example, the large antlers of a moose are bulky and heavy and slow the creature's flight from predators; they also can become entangled in low-hanging tree branches and shrubs, and undoubtedly have led to the demise of many individuals. Bright colourations and showy ornamenations, such as those seen in many male birds, in addition to capturing the eyes of females, also attract the attention of predators. Some of these traits also represent energetically costly investments for the animals that bear them. Because traits held to be due to sexual selection often conflict with the survival fitness of the individual, the question then arises as to why, in nature, in which survival of the fittest is considered the rule of thumb, such apparent liabilities are allowed to persist.
  • After copulation, male–male competition distinct from conventional aggression may take the form of sperm competition, as described by Parker[8] in 1970. More recently, interest has arisen in cryptic female choice,[9] a phenomenon of internally fertilised animals such as mammals and birds, where a female will get rid of a male's sperm without his knowledge.

Finally, sexual conflict is said to occur between breeding partners,[10] sometimes leading to an evolutionary arms race between males and females.

Female mating preferences are widely recognized as being responsible for the rapid and divergent evolution of male secondary sexual traits.[11] Females of many animal species prefer to mate with males with external ornaments - exaggerated features of morphology such as elaborate sex organs. These preferences may arise when an arbitrary female preference for some aspect of male morphology — initially, perhaps, a result of genetic drift — creates, in due course, selection for males with the appropriate ornament. One interpretation of this is known as the sexy son hypothesis. Alternatively, genes that enable males to develop impressive ornaments or fighting ability may simply show off greater disease resistance or a more efficient metabolism, features that also benefit females. This idea is known as the good genes hypothesis.

In humans[edit]

Darwin conjectured that heritable traits such as beards and hairlessness, significant in the geographical differentiation of human appearance, are results of sexual selection. Geoffrey Miller has hypothesized that many human behaviours not clearly tied to survival benefits, such as humour, music, visual art, verbal creativity, and some forms of altruism, are courtship adaptations that have been favoured through sexual selection. In that view, many human artefacts could be considered subject to sexual selection as part of the extended phenotype, for instance clothing that enhances sexually selected traits. Some argue that the evolution of human intelligence is a sexually selected trait, as it would not confer enough fitness in itself relative to its high maintenance costs.[12]

Darwin and the development of the theory[edit]

The theory was first proposed by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859) and developed in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) because Darwin felt that natural selection alone was unable to account for certain types of non-survival adaptations. He once wrote to a colleague that "The sight of a feather in a peacocks tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!" His work divided sexual selection into male-male competition and female choice.

... depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring.[13]

... when the males and females of any animal have the same general habits ... but differ in structure, colour, or ornament, such differences have been mainly caused by sexual selection.[14]

These views were opposed by Alfred Russel Wallace, though much of his opposition took place after Darwin's death. He argued that male-male competitions were forms of natural selection, but that the "drab" peahen's coloration is itself adaptive, as camouflage and that ascribing mate choice to females was, in his opinion, attributing the ability to judge standards of beauty to animals far too cognitively undeveloped to be capable of aesthetic feeling (such as beetles).

Wallace also argued that Darwin too much favoured the bright colours of the male peacock as adaptive without realizing that the "drab" peahen's coloration is itself adaptive, as camouflage.

Ronald Fisher[edit]

Ronald Fisher
The peacock tail in flight, the classic example of a Fisherian runaway

Ronald Fisher, the English statistician and evolutionary biologist developed a number of ideas about sexual selection in his 1930 book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection including the sexy son hypothesis and Fisher's principle. The Fisherian runaway describes how sexual selection accelerates the preference for a specific ornament, causing the preferred trait and female preference for it to increase together in a positive feedback runaway cycle. In a remark that was not widely understood[15] for another 50 years he said:

... plumage development in the male, and sexual preference for such developments in the female, must thus advance together, and so long as the process is unchecked by severe counterselection, will advance with ever-increasing speed. In the total absence of such checks, it is easy to see that the speed of development will be proportional to the development already attained, which will therefore increase with time exponentially, or in geometric progression. —Ronald Fisher, 1930

This causes a dramatic increase in both the male's conspicuous feature and in female preference for it, until practical, physical constraints halt further exaggeration. A positive feedback loop is created, producing extravagant physical structures in the non-limiting sex. A classic example of female choice and potential runaway selection is the long-tailed widowbird (left). While males have long tails that are selected for by female choice, female tastes in tail length are still more extreme with females being attracted to tails longer than those that naturally occur.[16] Fisher understood that female preference for long tails may be passed on genetically, in conjunction with genes for the long tail itself. Long-tailed widowbird offspring of both sexes will inherit both sets of genes, with females expressing their genetic preference for long tails, and males showing off the coveted long tail itself.[15]

Richard Dawkins presents a non-mathematical explanation of the runaway sexual selection process in his book The Blind Watchmaker.[15] Females who prefer long tailed males tend to have mothers that chose long-tailed fathers. As a result, they carry both sets of genes in their bodies. That is, genes for long tails and for preferring long tails become linked. The taste for long tails and tail length itself may therefore become correlated, tending to increase together. The more tails lengthen, the more long tails are desired. Any slight initial imbalance between taste and tails may set off an explosion in tail lengths. Fisher corresponded that:

The exponential element, which is the kernel of the thing, arises from the rate of change in hen taste being proportional to the absolute average degree of taste. —Ronald Fisher, 1932[17]

The female widow bird will desire to mate with the most attractive long-tailed male so that her progeny, if male, will themselves be attractive to females of the next generation - thereby fathering many offspring who will carry the female's genes. Since the rate of change in preference is proportional to the average taste amongst females, and as females desire to secure the services of the most sexually attractive males, an additive effect is created that, if unchecked, can yield exponential increases in a given taste and in the corresponding desired sexual attribute.

It is important to notice that the conditions of relative stability brought about by these or other means, will be far longer duration than the process in which the ornaments are evolved. In most existing species the runaway process must have been already checked, and we should expect that the more extraordinary developments of sexual plumage are not due like most characters to a long and even course of evolutionary progress, but to sudden spurts of change. —Ronald Fisher, 1930

Since Fisher's initial conceptual model of the 'runaway' process, Russell Lande[18] and Peter O'Donald[19] have provided detailed mathematical proofs that define the circumstances under which runaway sexual selection can take place.

Reproductive success[edit]

Extinct Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus). These antlers span 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) and have a mass of 40 kg (88 lb).

The reproductive success of an organism is measured by the number of offspring left behind, and their quality or probable fitness.

The grossest blunder in sexual preference, which we can conceive of an animal making, would be to mate with a species different from its own, and with which hybrids are either infertile, or, through the mixture of instincts and other attributes appropriate to different courses of life, at so serious a disadvantage as to leave no descendants. ... it is no conjecture that a discriminative mechanism exists, variations in which will be capable of giving rise to a similar discrimination within its own species, should such a discrimination become at any time advantageous.

Ronald Fisher, 1930

Individuals in each region most readily attracted to, or excited by, mates of the type there favoured, in contrast to possible mates of the opposite type, will, in fact, be the better represented in future generations, and both the discrimination and the preference will thereby be enhanced. It appears certainly possible that an evolution of sexual preference due to this cause would establish an effective isolation between two differentiated parts of a species, even when geographical and other factors were least favourable to such separation.

Ronald Fisher, 1930

Sexual preference creates a tendency towards assortative mating or homogamy. The general conditions of sexual discrimination appear to be (1) the acceptance of one mate precludes the effective acceptance of alternative mates, and (2) the rejection of an offer will be followed by other offers, either certainly, or at such high chance that the risk of non-occurrence will be smaller than the chance advantage to be gained by selecting a mate.

The conditions determining which sex becomes the more limited resource in intersexual selection can be best understood by way of Bateman's principle which states that "the sex which invests the most in producing offspring becomes a limiting resource over which the other sex will compete", illustrated by the greater nutritional investment of an egg in a zygote, and the limited capacity of females to reproduce; for example in humans a woman can only give birth every ten months whereas in theory a male can become a father every day.

Modern Interpretation[edit]

Male mountain gorilla, an example of a tournament species
Flour beetle
Tungara frog

The sciences of evolutionary psychology, human behavioural ecology, and sociobiology study the influence of sexual selection in humans, and are often controversial fields.

Darwin's ideas on sexual selection were met with scepticism by his contemporaries and not considered of great importance in the 20th century, so that in the 1930s biologists decided to include sexual selection as a mode of natural selection.[20] Only in the 21st century have they become more important in biology.[21]

New theories highlight intrinsically useful qualities of such traits. Antlers, horns and the like can be used in physical defence from a predator, and also in competition among males in a tournament species. The winner, which typically becomes the dominant animal in the population, is granted access to females, and therefore increases his reproductive output. Antlers are not the only mechanism that can be used to counteract predation. Predators typically look for the eyes of their prey so they can attack that end of the creature. The conspicuousness of eyespots on many species of butterflies and fishes confuses predators and helps to prevent the prey from suffering serious damage.[22]

Research published in 2015 indicates that sexual selection and the mate choices which "improves population health and protects against extinction, even in the face of genetic stress from high levels of inbreeding" and "ultimately dictates who gets to reproduce their genes into the next generation - so it's a widespread and very powerful evolutionary force."[4] The study involved the flour beetle over a ten-year period where the only changes were in the intensity of sexual selection.

Another, more recently developed, theory, the handicap principle of Amotz Zahavi, Russell Lande and W. D. Hamilton, holds that the fact that the male of the species is able to survive until and through the age of reproduction with such a seemingly maladaptive trait is effectively considered by the female to be a testament to his overall fitness. Such handicaps might prove he is either free of or resistant to disease, or it might demonstrate that this animal possesses more speed or a greater physical strength that is used to combat the troubles brought on by the exaggerated trait.

Zahavi's work spurred a re-examination of the field, which has produced an ever-accelerating number of theories. In 1984, Hamilton and Marlene Zuk introduced the "Bright Male" hypothesis, suggesting that male elaborations might serve as a marker of health, by exaggerating the effects of disease and deficiency. In 1990, Michael Ryan and A.S. Rand, working with the tungara frog, proposed the hypothesis of "Sensory Exploitation", where exaggerated male traits may provide a sensory stimulation that females find hard to resist. Subsequently the theories of the "Gravity Hypothesis" by Jordi Moya-Larano et al. and "Chase Away" by Brett Holland and William R. Rice have also been added. In addition, in the late 1970s Janzen and Mary Willson, noting that male flowers are often larger than female flowers, expanded the field of sexual selection into plants.

In the past few years, the field has exploded to include many additional observations and areas of study, not all of which are clearly included under Darwin's definition of sexual selection. These include cuckoldry, nuptial gifts, sperm competition, infanticide, physical beauty, mating by subterfuge, species isolation mechanisms, male parental care, ambiparental care, mate location, polygamy, and homosexual rape in certain male animals,

Focusing on the effect of sexual conflict, as hypothesized by William Rice, Locke Rowe et Göran Arnvist, Thierry Lodé[23] underlines that the divergence of interest constitutes a key for evolutionary process. Sexual conflict leads to an antagonistic co-evolution in which one sex tends to control the other, resulting in a tug of war. Besides, the sexual propaganda theory only argued that mate were opportunistically lead, on the basis of various factors determining the choice such as phenotypic characteristics, apparent vigour of individual, strength of mate signals, trophic resources, territoriality etc. and could explain the maintenance of genetic diversity within populations.

Several workers have brought attention to the fact that elaborated characters that ought to be costly in one way or another for their bearers (e.g., the tails of some species of Xiphophorus fish) do not always appear to have a cost in terms of energetics, performance or even survival. One possible explanation for the apparent lack of costs is that "compensatory traits" have evolved in concert with the sexually selected traits.[24]

As a toolkit of natural selection[edit]

Protarchaeopteryx - skull based on Incisivosaurus and wings on Caudipteryx

Sexual selection may explain how certain characteristics (such as feathers) had distinct survival value at an early stage in their evolution.

Geoffrey Miller proposes that sexual selection might have contributed by creating evolutionary modules such as Archaeopteryx feathers as sexual ornaments, at first. The earliest proto-birds such as China's Protarchaeopteryx, discovered in the early 1990s, had well-developed feathers but no sign of the top/bottom asymmetry that gives wings lift. Some have suggested that the feathers served as insulation, helping females incubate their eggs. But perhaps the feathers served as the kinds of sexual ornaments still common in most bird species, and especially in birds such as peacocks and birds-of-paradise today. If proto-bird courtship displays combined displays of forelimb feathers with energetic jumps, then the transition from display to aerodynamic functions could have been relatively smooth.[25]

Sexual selection sometimes generates features that may help cause a species' extinction, as has been suggested[25] for the giant antlers of the Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus) that became extinct in Pleistocene Europe.[26] However, sexual selection can also do the opposite, driving species divergence - sometimes through elaborate changes in genitalia - such that new species emerge.[27]

Sexual dimorphism[edit]

Sex differences directly related to reproduction and serving no direct purpose in courtship are called primary sexual characteristics. Traits amenable to sexual selection, which give an organism an advantage over its rivals (such as in courtship) without being directly involved in reproduction, are called secondary sex characteristics.

The rhinoceros beetle demonstrates a classic case of sexual dimorphism. This plate is from Darwin's Descent of Man, with the male at top, female at bottom.

In most sexual species the males and females have different equilibrium strategies, due to a difference in relative investment in producing offspring. As formulated in Bateman's principle, females have a greater initial investment in producing offspring (pregnancy in mammals or the production of the egg in birds and reptiles), and this difference in initial investment creates differences in variance in expected reproductive success and bootstraps the sexual selection processes. Classic examples of reversed sex-role species include the pipefish, and Wilson's phalarope. Also, unlike a female, a male (except in monogamous species) has some uncertainty about whether or not he is the true parent of a child, and so will be less interested in spending his energy helping to raise offspring that may or may not be related to him. As a result of these factors, males are typically more willing to mate than females, and so females are typically the ones doing the choosing (except in cases of forced copulations, which can occur in certain species of primates, ducks, and others). The effects of sexual selection are thus held to typically be more pronounced in males than in females.

Differences in secondary sexual characteristics between males and females of a species are referred to as sexual dimorphisms. These can be as subtle as a size difference (sexual size dimorphism, often abbreviated as SSD) or as extreme as horns and colour patterns. Sexual dimorphisms abound in nature. Examples include the possession of antlers by only male deer, the brighter coloration of many male birds in comparison with females of the same species, or even more distinct differences in basic morphology, such as the drastically increased eye-span of the male stalk-eyed fly. The peacock, with its elaborate and colourful tail feathers, which the peahen lacks, is often referred to as perhaps the most extraordinary example of a dimorphism. Male and female black-throated blue warblers and Guianan cock-of-the-rocks also differ radically in their plumage. Early naturalists even believed the females to be a separate species. The largest sexual size dimorphism in vertebrates is the shell dwelling cichlid fish Neolamprologus callipterus in which males are up to 30 times the size of females. Many other fish such as guppies also exhibit sexual dimorphism. Extreme sexual size dimorphism, with females larger than males, is quite common in spiders.


  1. ^ Cecie Starr (2013). Biology: The Unity & Diversity of Life (Ralph Taggart, Christine Evers, Lisa Starr ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 281. 
  2. ^ Vogt, Yngve (January 29, 2014). "Large testicles are linked to infidelity". Retrieved January 31, 2014. 
  3. ^ Darwin, Charles; A.R. Wallace (1858). "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection" (PDF). Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Zoology 3: 46–50. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.1858.tb02500.x. Retrieved 21 November 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Population benefits of sexual selection explain the existence of males May 18, 2015 Report on a study by the University of East Anglia
  5. ^ Sexual selection in fugni Published by Journal of Evolutionary Biology
  6. ^ Tales of two snails: sexual selection and sexual conflict in Lymnaea stagnalis and Helix aspersa Oxford Journals
  7. ^ Campbell, N. A.; J. B. Reece (2005). Biology. Benjamin Cummings. p. 1230. ISBN 0-8053-7146-X. 
  8. ^ Parker, Geoffrey A. (1970). "Sperm competition and its evolutionary consequences in the insects". Biological Reviews 45: 525–567. doi:10.1111/j.1469-185x.1970.tb01176.x. 
  9. ^ Eberhard, WG. (1996) Female control: Sexual selection by cryptic female choice. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
  10. ^ Locke Rowe, Göran Arnvist. (2005) Sexual conflict, Princeton Univ Press
  11. ^ Andersson M (1994). Sexual Selection. Princeton Univ Press, Princeton, NJ.
  12. ^ PLoS ONE: Sexual Selection and the Evolution of Brain Size in Primates
  13. ^ Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species (1st edition). Chapter 4, page 88. "And this leads me to say a few words on what I call Sexual Selection. This depends ..."
  14. ^ Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species (1st edition). Chapter 4, page 89.
  15. ^ a b c Dawkins, Richard (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. Longman, London. Published in Penguin Books 1988, 1991, and 2006. Chapter 8, Explosions and Spirals.
  16. ^ Andersson, M, Sexual Selection, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994.
  17. ^ Ronald Fisher in a letter to Charles Galton Darwin, 22 November 1932, cited in Fisher, R. A., Bennett, J. H. 1999. The genetical theory of natural selection: A complete variorum edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 308
  18. ^ Lande, R. (1981). "Models of speciation by sexual selection on polygenic traits". PNAS 78 (6): 3721–3725. doi:10.1073/pnas.78.6.3721. PMC 319643. PMID 16593036.
  19. ^ O'Donald, Peter (1980). Genetic Models of Sexual Selection. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. 250 pp.
  20. ^ Miller, Geoffey, The Mating Mind, p.24
  22. ^ "Image". 
  23. ^ Thierry Lodé (2006). "La guerre des sexes chez les animaux " Eds Odile Jacob, Paris. ISBN 2-7381-1901-8
  24. ^ Sexual Selection Costs & Compensations
  25. ^ a b Miller, Geoffrey (2000). The Mating Mind. Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. (First Anchor Books Edition, April 2001). New York, NY. Anchor ISBN 0-385-49517-X
  26. ^ Gould, Stephen J. (1974). "Origin and Function of 'Bizarre' Structures - Antler Size and Skull Size in 'Irish Elk', Megaloceros giganteus". Evolution 28 (2): 191–220. doi:10.2307/2407322. 
  27. ^ Eberhard, W. G. (1985). Sexual Selection and Animal Genitalia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.


Further reading[edit]

  • Judson, Olivia (2003) Dr.Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex. ISBN 978-0-09-928375-1
  • Jolly, Allison (2001) Lucy's Legacy - Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution. ISBN 978-0-674-00540-2
  • Diamond, Jared (1997) Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality. ISBN 978-0-465-03126-9

External links[edit]