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Sexual selection enables long-term coexistence despite ecological equivalence


Empirical data indicate that sexual preferences are critical for maintaining species boundaries1,2,3,4, yet theoretical work has suggested that, on their own, they can have only a minimal role in maintaining biodiversity5,6,7,8,9. This is because long-term coexistence within overlapping ranges is thought to be unlikely in the absence of ecological differentiation9. Here we challenge this widely held view by generalizing a standard model of sexual selection to include two ubiquitous features of populations with sexual selection: spatial variation in local carrying capacity, and mate-search costs in females. We show that, when these two features are combined, sexual preferences can single-handedly maintain coexistence, even when spatial variation in local carrying capacity is so slight that it might go unnoticed empirically. This theoretical study demonstrates that sexual selection alone can promote the long-term coexistence of ecologically equivalent species with overlapping ranges, and it thus provides a novel explanation for the maintenance of species diversity.

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Figure 1: Sexual selection enables long-term coexistence of ecologically equivalent species.
Figure 2: Loss and maintenance of coexistence.
Figure 3: Conditions for long-term coexistence.
Figure 4: Mosaic sympatry.


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We thank J. S. Brown, R. G. FitzJohn, D. E. Irwin, J. Ohlberger, J. L. Payne, A. Pomiankowski and G. S. van Doorn for discussions. Funding was provided by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (Canada) grant to L.K.M. (CGS-D) and S.P.O. (Discovery Grant). L.K.M. received additional support from the European Science Foundation Research Networking Programme ‘Frontiers of Speciation Research’. R.M. and U.D. gratefully acknowledge support by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF). U.D. received additional financial support from the European Commission, the European Science Foundation, the Austrian Science Fund and the Austrian Ministry of Science and Research.

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Authors and Affiliations



U.D. and L.K.M. conceived this project. L.K.M., R.M., S.P.O. and U.D. discussed and designed the model. L.K.M. implemented the model with input from R.M., analysed the results together with R.M., S.P.O. and U.D. and prepared the manuscript. L.K.M., R.M., S.P.O. and U.D. jointly edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Leithen K. M’Gonigle.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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M’Gonigle, L., Mazzucco, R., Otto, S. et al. Sexual selection enables long-term coexistence despite ecological equivalence. Nature 484, 506–509 (2012).

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