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Rapid evolution of reproductive barriers driven by sexual conflict


A growing amount of experimental data indicates extremely rapid evolution of traits and proteins related to fertilization in many diverging taxa1,2,3. These data come from studies of sperm or pollen competition between closely related species3,4,5,6, and from molecular studies of fertilization proteins2,7,8,9,10. The positive selection for evolutionary novelty that appears to be acting on fertilization systems seems paradoxical because successful reproduction requires the close matching of female and male traits. It has been suggested11,12,13 that perpetual coevolution between the sexes can result from sexual conflict in mating. Sexual conflict occurs when characteristics that enhance the reproductive success of one sex reduce the fitness of the other sex14. Numerous examples of sexual conflict resulting from sensory exploitation, polyspermy and the cost of mating have been discussed in detail1,2,3,14,15. The potential for coevolution due to such conflict has been evaluated experimentally15,16. Here I develop a simple mathematical model describing coevolutionary dynamics of male and female traits involved in reproduction. The model shows that continual change in such traits at a constant speed is expected whenever females (or eggs) experience fitness loss from having too many compatible males (or sperms). The plausibility of runaway coevolution increases with increasing population size. Rapid evolution of reproductive barriers driven by sexual conflict may explain increased speciation rates after colonization of new habitats (‘adaptive radiation’) and high species richness in resource-rich environments.

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Figure 1: Evolution towards a stable line of equilibria ȳ = .
Figure 2: Runaway dynamics along lines ȳ = ± δ.


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I am grateful to G. Arnqvist, C. R. B. Boake, M. B. Cruzan and G. McCracken for discussions and/or helpful comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by an NIH grant and by a grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

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Gavrilets, S. Rapid evolution of reproductive barriers driven by sexual conflict. Nature 403, 886–889 (2000).

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