Letters to Nature

Nature 414, 300-302 (15 November 2001) | doi:10.1038/35104547; Received 3 July 2001; Accepted 6 September 2001

Female sticklebacks count alleles in a strategy of sexual selection explaining MHC polymorphism

Thorsten B. H. Reusch1,2, Michael A. Häberli1,2, Peter B. Aeschlimann1,2 & Manfred Milinski1

  1. Max Planck Institute for Limnology, Department of Evolutionary Ecology, Postfach 165, 24306 Plön, Germany
  2. These authors contributed equally to this work

Correspondence to: Thorsten B. H. Reusch1,2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to T.B.H.R. (e-mail: Email: reusch@mpil-ploen.mpg.de).

The origin and maintenance of polymorphism in major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes in natural populations is still unresolved1. Sexual selection, frequency-dependent selection by parasites and pathogens, and heterozygote advantage have been suggested to explain the maintenance of high allele diversity at MHC genes2, 3, 4. Here we argue that there are two (non-exclusive) strategies for MHC-related sexual selection, representing solutions to two different problems: inbreeding avoidance and parasite resistance. In species prone to inadvertent inbreeding, partners should prefer dissimilar MHC genotypes to similar ones. But if the goal is to maximize the resistance of offspring towards potential infections, the choosing sex should prefer mates with a higher diversity of MHC alleles. This latter strategy should apply when there are several MHC loci, as is the case in most vertebrates2, 5. We tested the relative importance of an 'allele counting' strategy compared to a disassortative mating strategy using wild-caught three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) from an interconnected system of lakes. Here we show that gravid female fish preferred the odour of males with a large number of MHC class-IIB alleles to that of males with fewer alleles. Females did not prefer male genotypes dissimilar to their own.