Vocalizations by Alaskan moose: female incitation of male aggression
Evidence of female fomentation of male–male aggression as a mechanism of mate choice is rare, especially in mammals. Female choice of mates in polygynous species may be masked by intense male competition or by males attempting to restrict female choice. We studied protest moans of female Alaskan moose Alces alces gigas in interior Alaska, USA, from 1987 to 1990, to determine if moans incited male–male aggression. Alaskan moose exhibit a mating system in which one dominant male (the harem master) herds, defends, courts, and attempts to mate with females in his harem. Protest moans were given by females only in response to courtship. We hypothesized that if protest moans were related to females reducing harassment and exercising mate choice, females should give protest moans more frequently when courted by small males and less often when courted by large males, and that rates of male–male aggression would be elevated following protest moans. Harems were composed of one large male, with a mean of 4.4 females (median = 3 females); 10% of 132 harems included ≥10 females. The temporal pattern of protest moans from late August through November was associated with, but tended to lag behind, mating behavior. The rate of protest moans given by females decreased with increasing size of males courting them. Male–male aggression was significantly less during periods without protest moans than during periods in which protest moans occurred. These results indicate that female moose gave protest moans to reduce harassment by smaller males, and assure a mating opportunity with the most dominant male. Such a subtle mechanism of indirect mate choice by females may occur in other vertebrates in which choice is limited by a mating system in which male–male combat and male dominance over females reduces opportunities for female choice. The importance of female choice may be undervalued in studies of sexual selection in mammals.