Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 49–59

Copulatory tactics in relation to sperm competition in Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep

  • John T. Hogg


Sperm competition arises in the bighorn mating system because receptive ewes are some-times defended and mated in sequence by a series of increasingly dominant rams and because subordinate (coursing) rams commonly succeed in forcing matings with defended ewes. To identify potential components in a male strategy of sperm competition, the social circumstances and schedule of copulation among free-ranging bighorns were investigated. Three such components emerged: (i) Defending and coursing rams copulated with estrous ewes at extraordinarily high rates, presumably to increase the proportion of their own versus rivals' sperm present at fertilization by simple numerical preponderance at insemination. (ii) Coursing but not defending rams concentrated copulations later in the period of estrus (sensu this study). Evidence from domestic sheep suggests that this may correspond to the period of maximum female fertility. A greater risk and/or reduced benefit associated with forced versus cooperative copulation may force coursing rams to restrict copulation to periods of highest fertility, whereas defending rams may gain even from copulations outside this period. (iii) Defending rams copulated at unusually high rates immediately after bouts of successful coursing. Such “retaliatory” copulations were associated with reduced amounts of courtship and were more likely to occur if the defending ram had copulated infrequently recently. The number of retaliatory copulations was independent of the number of preceding forced copulations, probably because defending rams rationed ejaculates in anticipation of future coursing. The function of retaliation is not clear, although the literature on domestic sheep suggests the possibility of some form of mechanical displacement of rival sperm. Unlike females of many ungulate species, bighorn ewes were typically receptive to cooperative copulation over a period of days. Although persistent courtship by defending rams may coerce such extended receptivity, it is also possible that ewes, facing unavoidable forced matings by coursing rams, gain genotypic benefits for offspring by providing prolonged copulatory access to relatively dominant defending rams.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • John T. Hogg
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of MontanaMissoulaUSA
  2. 2.Craighead Wildlife-Wildlands Institute, Inc.MissoulaUSA

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