What is Sexual Selection?

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The photo on the left shows a peacock with a bright blue body and flared tail feathers standing next to a brown, drab peahen. The middle photo shows a large female spider sitting on a web next to its much smaller male counterpart. The photo on the right shows a brightly colored male wood duck swimming next to a drab brown female.
Sexual dimorphism in (a) peacocks and peahens, (b) Argiope appensa spiders (the female spider is the large one), and in (c) wood ducks. (credit “spiders”: modification of work by “Sanba38”/Wikimedia Commons; credit “duck”: modification of work by Kevin Cole)

OpenStax Biology 2e

Males and females of certain species are often quite different from one another in ways beyond the reproductive organs. Males are often larger, for example, and display many elaborate colors and adornments, like the peacock’s tail, while females tend to be smaller and duller in decoration. We call such differences sexual dimorphisms, which arise in many populations, particularly animal populations, where there is more variance in the male’s reproductive success than that of the females. That is, some males—often the bigger, stronger, or more decorated males—obtain the vast majority of the total matings, while others receive none. This can occur because the males are better at fighting off other males, or because females will choose to mate with the bigger or more decorated males. In either case, this variation in reproductive success generates a strong selection pressure among males to obtain those matings, resulting in the evolution of bigger body size and elaborate ornaments to attract the females’ attention. Females, however, tend to achieve a handful of selected matings; therefore, they are more likely to select more desirable males.

Sexual dimorphism varies widely among species, and some species are even sex-role reversed. In such cases, females tend to have a greater variance in their reproductive success than males and are correspondingly selected for the bigger body size and elaborate traits usually characteristic of males.

We call the selection pressures on males and females to obtain matings sexual selection. It can result in developing secondary sexual characteristics that do not benefit the individual’s likelihood of survival but help to maximize its reproductive success. Sexual selection can be so strong that it selects traits that are actually detrimental to the individual’s survival. Think, once again, about the peacock’s tail. While it is beautiful and the male with the largest, most colorful tail is more likely to win the female, it is not the most practical appendage. In addition to greater visibility to predators, it makes the males slower in their attempted escapes. There is some evidence that this risk is why females like the big tails in the first place. The speculation is that large tails carry risk, and only the best males survive that risk: the bigger the tail, the more fit the male. We call this the handicap principle.

The good genes hypothesis states that males develop these impressive ornaments to show off their efficient metabolism or their ability to fight disease. Females then choose males with the most impressive traits because it signals their genetic superiority, which they will then pass on to their offspring. Although one may argue that females should not be picky because it will likely reduce their number of offspring, if better males father more fit offspring, it may be beneficial. Fewer, healthier offspring may increase the chances of survival more than many, weaker offspring.

In both the handicap principle and the good genes hypothesis, the trait is an honest signal of the males’ quality, thus giving females a way to find the fittest mates— males that will pass the best genes to their offspring.

Source:

Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e

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