Comparative evidence for the evolution of genitalia by sexual selection


Rapid divergent evolution of male genitalia is one of the most general evolutionary trends in animals with internal fertilization; the shapes of genital traits often provide the only reliable characters for species identification1. Yet the evolutionary processes responsible for this pattern remain obscure. The long-standing lock-and-key hypothesis, still popular among taxonomists, suggests that genitalia evolve by pre-insemination hybridization avoidance; that is, hybrid inferiority drives the evolution of male genitalia with a proper mechanical fit to female genitalia. The sexual selection hypothesis2,3, in contrast, proposes that divergent evolution of genitalia is the result of sexual selection, brought about by variation in postinsemination paternity success among males. Here, by comparing pairs of related clades of insects that differ in mating system, I assess how the opportunity for postmating sexual selection affects the rate of divergent evolution of male genitalia. Genital evolution is more than twice as divergent in groups in which females mate several times than in groups in which females mate only once. This pattern is not found for other morphological traits. These findings provide strong empirical evidence in favour of a postmating sexual selection mechanism of genital evolution.

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Figure 1: Comparison of the rate of genitalic evolution in polyandrous and monandrous clades.


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I thank L. Rowe and P. Watson for comments. This study was made possible by the expert advice from many entomologists (see Supplementary information), and was generously funded by a grant from the Swedish Natural Science Research Council.

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Correspondence to Göran Arnqvist.

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Arnqvist, G. Comparative evidence for the evolution of genitalia by sexual selection. Nature 393, 784–786 (1998).

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