Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 69, Issue 12, pp 1897–1906 | Cite as

Sex-biased parental care and sexual size dimorphism in a provisioning arthropod

  • Jeremy Field
  • Gavin Shreeves
  • Martyn Kennedy
  • Selina Brace
  • James D. J. Gilbert
Original Article


The diverse selection pressures driving the evolution of sexual size dimorphism (SSD) have long been debated. Whilst the balance between fecundity selection and sexual selection has received much attention, explanations based on sex-specific ecology have proven harder to test. In ectotherms, females are typically larger than males, and this is frequently thought to be because size constrains female fecundity more than it constrains male mating success. However, SSD could additionally reflect maternal care strategies. Under this hypothesis, females are relatively larger where reproduction requires greater maximum maternal effort—for example where mothers transport heavy provisions to the nests. To test this hypothesis, we focussed on digger wasps (Hymenoptera: Ammophilini), a relatively homogeneous group in which only females provision offspring. In some species, a single large prey item, up to ten times the mother’s weight, must be carried to each burrow on foot; other species provide many small prey, each flown individually to the nest. We found more pronounced female-biased SSD in species where females carry single, heavy prey. More generally, SSD was negatively correlated with the numbers of prey provided per offspring. Females provisioning multiple small items had longer wings and thoraxes, probably because smaller prey are carried in flight. Despite much theorising, few empirical studies have tested how sex-biased parental care can affect SSD. Our study reveals that such costs can be associated with the evolution of dimorphism, and this should be investigated in other clades where parental care costs differ between sexes and species.


Sexual dimorphism Parental care Hymenoptera Wasps 



We thank Charlotte Stimmler, who performed some of the measurements, and T. Collett, E. Leadbeater, J. Green, E. Lucas, C. Bridge and the referees for comments on various versions of the manuscript. We also thank J.D. Asis, Y. Barbier, P. Gambino, A.W. Hook, V.L. Kazenas, R.P. Martins, A.S. Menke, M.F. O’Brien, A.M. O’Brien, F.D. Parker, J.A. Rosenheim, V.J. Tepedino and A.J.S. Weaving for kindly giving access to the specimens used in the study.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Compliance with ethical standards

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeremy Field
    • 1
  • Gavin Shreeves
    • 2
  • Martyn Kennedy
    • 3
  • Selina Brace
    • 4
  • James D. J. Gilbert
    • 1
    • 5
  1. 1.School of Life SciencesUniversity of SussexBrightonUK
  2. 2.Department of Medical OncologyMount Vernon HospitalMiddlesexUK
  3. 3.Allan Wilson Centre, Department of ZoologyUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  4. 4.Department of Earth SciencesNatural History MuseumLondonUK
  5. 5.Department of Biological, Biomedical and Environmental ScienceUniversity of HullHullUK

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