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Testing the genetics underlying the co-evolution of mate choice and ornament in the wild


One of the most debated questions in evolutionary biology is whether female choice of males with exaggerated sexual displays can evolve as a correlated response to selection acting on genes coding for male attractiveness or high overall viability. To date, empirical studies have provided support for parts of this scenario1, but evidence for all key genetic components in a natural population is lacking. Here we use animal-model quantitative genetic analysis2,3 on data from over 8,500 collared flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis) followed for 24 years to quantify all of the key genetic requirements of both fisherian4,5 and ‘good-genes’ models6,7 on sexual selection in the wild. We found significant additive genetic variances of all the main components: male ornament (forehead patch size), female mate choice for this ornament, male fitness and female fitness. However, when the necessary genetic correlations between these components were taken into account, the estimated strength of indirect sexual selection on female mate choice was negligible. Our results show that the combined effect of environmental influences on several components reduces the potential for indirect sexual selection in the wild. This study provides insight into the field of sexual selection by showing that genes coding for mate choice for an ornament probably evolve by their own pathways instead of ‘hitchhiking’ with genes coding for the ornament.

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Figure 1: Components of variance in male ornament and female choice for the ornament.


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We thank A. Berglund, M. Björklund, M. Kirkpatrick and T. Pärt for comments on the manuscript and for technical advice, and all people involved in field work over the years. Financial support was provided by the Swedish Research Council (to A.Q. and L.G.) and the Academy of Finland (to J.E.B.). Author Contributions A.Q. came up with the idea and wrote the manuscript together with J.E.B, who also did all the analyses. L.G. organized the long-term study, and all three authors took active part in discussion and commenting on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Anna Qvarnström.

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Qvarnström, A., Brommer, J. & Gustafsson, L. Testing the genetics underlying the co-evolution of mate choice and ornament in the wild. Nature 441, 84–86 (2006).

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