Odor familiarity and female preferences for males in a threatened primate, the pygmy loris Nycticebus pygmaeus: applications for genetic management of small populations
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Here we use sexual selection theory to develop a logistically simple, yet effective, method for the manipulation of female reproductive behavior for conservation goals. Mate choice leading to nonrandom mating patterns can exacerbate the loss of genetic diversity in small populations. On theoretical grounds, females should choose high-quality mates. A prediction stemming from chemical communication theory is that competitive males will be better able to saturate an area with scent marks. If this is true, females should mate preferentially with males whose odors they encounter most frequently. We tested this hypothesis with the pygmy loris, Nycticebus pygmaeus, a threatened and poorly studied nocturnal prosimian. For several weeks females were exposed repeatedly to the urine from a particular male, and were then allowed to choose between a male whose odors were familiar and one whose odors were novel. Females showed an unusually strong preference for the familiar-odor male, as indicated by several behavioral measures of mate preference. Conservation managers can use this method as a tool to obtain reproductive pairings that will maximize genetic compatibility and diversity. For example, unsuccessful males may be given the opportunity to reproduce. In captive populations, studbook managers often select pairs in order to optimize outbreeding, but these selected pairings may not coincide with the preferences of the individual animals involved. Although several authors have made theoretical arguments for manipulating mate choice for conservation, this is a novel test of a proximate mechanism that can be manipulated, cultivating applications rather than mere implications.
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