Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 67, Issue 4, pp 675–683 | Cite as

Females prefer males with superior fighting abilities but avoid sexually harassing winners when eavesdropping on male fights

  • David Bierbach
  • Vanessa Sassmannshausen
  • Bruno Streit
  • Lenin Arias-Rodriguez
  • Martin Plath
Original Paper


Selection imposed by male competition (intrasexual selection) and female choice (intersexual selection) can be con- or discordant. Specifically, females may or may not prefer mating with dominant males, and direct costs of interacting with dominant (and possibly more harassing) males have been suggested to explain avoidance of dominant males. Here, we exemplify that inter- and intrasexual selection may normally act in the same direction, but can be temporarily conflicting when social information becomes available. Using video playback techniques, we presented females of the Mexican livebearing fish Poecilia mexicana with two size-matched males and established association preferences. Half of the females could then observe the same two males fight and establish dominance, while control females saw both males side by side, but physically separated, and female preferences were subsequently re-evaluated. Females in the control group showed a significant preference for future winners in the subsequent testing, confirming an innate or acquired preference for male traits that are indicative of physical superiority, even when body size as a choice criterion is excluded. When allowed to eavesdrop on male fights, however, females did not show a preference for observed winners and even decreased time spent with them relative to the control treatment in which no fight was shown. A subsequent experiment found contest winners to show elevated levels of sexual behavior, so we argue that the temporary offset of the intrinsic female preference for dominant males after having observed a fight is indeed driven by direct costs females expect from more harassing contest winners.


Female choice Social learning Sexual conflict Non-independent mate choice Male competition 



H. Geupel helped with animal care, and P. Slattery and R. Riesch kindly commented on previous manuscript drafts. The present study was financially supported by the research funding program “LOEWE—Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz” of Hesse's Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and the Arts, the German Research Foundation (DFG; PL 470/3–1) and the Presidential Office of the J.W. Goethe University of Frankfurt (Nachwuchswissenschaftler im Fokus).

Ethical standards

The experiments reported here comply with the current laws of Germany (approved by Regierungspräsidium Darmstadt V-54-19c-20/15-F104/Anz.18).


  1. Andersson M (1994) Sexual selection. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  2. Baker M, Bjerke T, Lampe H, Espmark Y (1986) Sexual response of female great tits to variation in size of males’ song repertoires. Am Nat 128:491CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beaugrand J, Goulet C, Payette D (1991) Outcome of dyadic conflict in male green swordtail fish, Xiphophorus helleri: effects of body size and prior dominance. Anim Behav 41:417–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Berglund A, Bisazza A, Pilastro A (1996) Armaments and ornaments: an evolutionary explanation of traits of dual utility. Biol J Linn Soc 58:385–399CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bierbach D, Girndt A, Hamfler S, Klein M, Mucksch F, Penshorn M, Schwinn M, Zimmer C, Schlupp I, Streit B, Plath M (2011a) Male fish use prior knowledge about rivals to adjust their mate choice. Biol Lett 7:349–351PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bierbach D, Schulte M, Herrmann N, Tobler M, Stadler S, Jung CT, Kunkel B, Riesch R, Klaus S, Ziege M, Indy JR, Arias-Rodriguez L, Plath M (2011b) Predator-induced changes of female mating preferences: innate and experiential effects. BMC Evol Biol 11:190PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bierbach D, Klein M, Sassmannshausen V, Schlupp I, Riesch R, Parzefall J, Plath M (2012) Divergent evolution of male aggressive behaviour: another reproductive isolation mechanism in extremophile poeciliid fishes. Int J Evol Biol. doi: 10.1155/2012/148745
  8. Bishop PJ, Jennions MD, Passmore NI (1995) Chorus size and call intensity: female choice in the painted reed frog, Hyperolius marmoratus. Behaviour 132:721–731CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bonnie KE, Earley RL (2007) Expanding the scope for social information use. Anim Behav 74:171–181Google Scholar
  10. Brewster J, Houde A (2003) Are female guppies more likely to flee when approached by two males? J Fish Biol 63:1056–1059CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Candolin U (2004) Opposing selection on a sexually dimorphic trait through female choice and male competition in a water boatman. Evolution 58:1861–1864PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Constantz G (1989) Reproductive biology of poeciliid fishes. In: Meffe G, Snelson F (eds) Ecology and evolution of livebearing fishes (Poeciliidae). Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, pp 33–50Google Scholar
  13. Dabelsteen T (2005) Public, private or anonymous? Facilitating and countering eavesdropping. In: McGregor PK (ed) Animal communication networks. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 38–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Doutrelant C, McGregor PK (2000) Eavesdropping and mate choice in female fighting fish. Behaviour 137:1655–1668CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dugatkin LA (1996) Copying and mate choice. In: Heyes CM, Galef BGJ (eds) Social learning in animals: the roots of culture. Academic Press, New York, pp 85–105Google Scholar
  16. Earley RL (2010) Social eavesdropping and the evolution of conditional cooperation and cheating strategies. Philos T Roy Soc B 365:2675–2686CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Earley RL, Dugatkin LA (2005) Fighting, mating and networking: pillars of poeciliid sociality. In: McGregor PK (ed) Animal communication networks. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 84–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fisher HS, Rosenthal GG (2007) Male swordtails court with an audience in mind. Biol Lett 3:5–7PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fitzsimmons LP, Foote JR, Ratcliffe LM, Mennill DJ (2008) Eavesdropping and communication networks revealed through playback and an acoustic location system. Behav Ecol 19:824–829CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gasparini C, Devigili A, Pilastro A (2012) Cross-generational effects of sexual harassment on female fitness in the guppy. Evolution 66:532–543PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goldstein JS (2001) War and gender: how gender shapes the war system and vice versa. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  22. Hannes R-P, Franck D, Liemann F (1984) Effects of rank-order fights on whole-body and blood concentrations of androgens and corticosteroids in the male swordtail (Xiphophorus helleri). Z Tierpsychol 65:53–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Howard RD, Martens RS, Innis SA, Drnevich JM, Hale J (1998) Mate choice and mate competition influence male body size in Japanese medaka. Anim Behav 55:1151–1163PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hunt J, Breuker CJ, Sadowski JA, Moore AJ (2009) Male–male competition, female mate choice and their interaction: determining total sexual selection. J Evol Biol 22:13–26PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Köhler A, Hildenbrand P, Schleucher E, Riesch R, Arias-Rodriguez L, Streit B, Plath M (2011) Effects of male sexual harassment on female time budgets, feeding behavior, and metabolic rates in a tropical livebearing fish (Poecilia mexicana). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 65:1513–1523CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Magurran AE (2011) Sexual coersion. In: Evans J, Pilastro A, Schlupp I (eds) Ecology and evolution of poeciliid fishes. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 209–217Google Scholar
  27. McCoy E, Syska N, Plath M, Schlupp I, Riesch R (2011) Mustached males in a tropical poeciliid fish: emerging female preference selects for a novel male trait. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 65:1437–1445CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. McGregor PK, Peake T (2000) Communication networks: social environments for receiving and signaling behaviour. Acta Ethol 2:71–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Meisel RL, Sachs BD (1994) The physiology of male sexual behavior. In: Knobil E, Neill JD (eds) Physiology of reproduction, 2nd edn. Raven, New York, pp 3–106Google Scholar
  30. Miller R, Minckley W, Norris S (2006) Freshwater fishes of Mexico. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  31. Monaghan EP, Glickman SE (1992) Hormones and aggressive behavior. In: Becker JB, Breedlove SM, Crews D (eds) Behavioral endocrinology. MIT, Cambridge, pp 261–286Google Scholar
  32. Morris MR, Batra P, Ryan MJ (1992) Male–male competition and access to females in the swordtail Xiphophorus nigrensis. Copeia 1992:980–986CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Morris M, Gass L, Ryan M (1995) Assessment and individual recognition of opponents in the pygmy swordtails Xiphophorus nigrensis and X. multilineatus. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 37:303–310CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Naguib M, Amrhein V, Kunc HP (2004) Effects of territorial intrusions on eavesdropping neighbors: communication networks in nightingales. Behav Ecol 15:1011–1015CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ophir AG, Galef BG Jr (2003) Female Japanese quail that ‘eavesdrop’ on fighting males prefer losers to winners. Anim Behav 66:399–407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Padur L, Wedekind J, Öztürk Ö, Streit B, Tiedemann R, Plath M (2009) Do audience effects lead to relaxed male sexual harassment? Behaviour 146:1739–1758CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Parzefall J (1969) Zur vergleichenden Ethologie verschiedener Mollienesia-Arten einschliesslich einer Höhlenform von M. sphenops. Behaviour 33:1–38PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Peake TM (2005) Eavesdropping in communication networks. In: McGregor PK (ed) Animal communication networks. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 13–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Plath M (2008) Male mating behavior and costs of sexual harassment for females in cavernicolous and extremophile populations of Atlantic mollies (Poecilia mexicana). Behaviour 145:73–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Plath M, Tobler M (2007) Sex recognition in surface- and cave-dwelling Atlantic molly females (Poecilia mexicana, Poeciliidae, Teleostei): influence of visual and non-visual cues. Acta Ethol 10:81–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Plath M, Seggel U, Burmeister H, Heubel KU, Schlupp I (2006) Choosy males from the underground: male mating preferences in surface- and cave-dwelling Atlantic mollies (Poecilia mexicana). Naturwissenschaften 93:103–109PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Plath M, Makowicz AM, Schlupp I, Tobler M (2007) Sexual harassment in live-bearing fishes (Poeciliidae): comparing courting and noncourting species. Behav Ecol 18:680–688CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Qvarnström A, Forsgren E (1998) Should females prefer dominant males? Trends Ecol Evol 13:498–501PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Reichard M, Bryja J, Ondracková M, Dávidová M, Kaniewska P, Smith C (2005) Sexual selection for male dominance reduces opportunities for female mate choice in the European bitterling (Rhodeus sericeus). Mol Ecol 14:1533–1542PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Riesch R, Schlupp I, Plath M (2008) Female sperm limitation in natural populations of a sexual/asexual mating complex (Poecilia latipinna, P. formosa). Biol Lett 4:266–269PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Schlupp I, Plath M (2005) Male mate choice and sperm allocation in a sexual/asexual mating complex of Poecilia (Poeciliidae, Teleostei). Biol Lett 1:169–171PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Tobler M, Plath M, Burmeister H, Schlupp I (2006) Black spots and female mating preferences in a sexual/asexual mating complex (Poecilia, Poeciliidae, Teleostei). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 60:159–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Tobler M, Palacios M, Chapman LJ, Mitrofanov I, Bierbach D, Plath M, Arias-Rodriguez L, de Leon FJ, Mateos M (2011) Evolution in extreme environments: replicated phenotypic differentiation in livebearing fish inhabiting sulfidic springs. Evolution 65:2213–2228PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Walling C, Royle N, Lindström J, Metcalfe N (2010) Do female association preferences predict the likelihood of reproduction? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 64:541–548CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Watters JV (2005) Can the alternative male tactics ‘fighter’ and ‘sneaker’ be considered ‘coercer’ and ‘cooperator’ in coho salmon? Anim Behav 70:1055–1062CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Westneat DF, Walters A, McCarthy TM, Hatch MI, Hein W (2000) Alternative mechanisms of nonindependent mate choice. Anim Behav 59:467–476Google Scholar
  52. Witte K (2006) Learning and mate choice. In: Brown C, Laland KN, Krause J (eds) Fish cognition and behavior. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, pp 70–95Google Scholar
  53. Wong BBM, Candolin U (2005) How is female mate choice affected by male competition? Biol Rev 80:559–571PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Bierbach
    • 1
  • Vanessa Sassmannshausen
    • 1
  • Bruno Streit
    • 1
  • Lenin Arias-Rodriguez
    • 2
  • Martin Plath
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Ecology & EvolutionJ. W. Goethe University FrankfurtFrankfurtGermany
  2. 2.División Académica de Ciencias BiológicasUniversidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco (UJAT)VillahermosaMéxico

Personalised recommendations