Sexual conflict and sexually dimorphic cognition—reviewing their relationship in poeciliid fishes

Review
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. From sensory perception to behavior

Abstract

Sexual conflict, the difference in preferred mating rates between the sexes, often leads to sexually dimorphic morphologies, strategies, and behaviors. We are now beginning to realize that this pervasive evolutionary process has implications for variation in cognition as well. Here, I review the evidence for this in poeciliid fishes with a focus on taxa that exhibit high levels of sexual conflict (Gambusia affinis, G. holbrooki, Poecilia reticulata) as well as taxa that represent a more moderate level of sexual conflict (Xiphophorus nigrensis). Sexually dimorphic behaviors emerge across poeciliids in predictable directions consistent with sexual conflict and associated with sex-specific variation in cognition. For instance, poeciliid females have evolved a suite of behaviors that reduce male harassment, including greater shoaling tendencies and risk sensitivities than males. Meanwhile, cognitive styles and cognitive-behavioral profiles diverge between the sexes in ways that highlight these behavioral differences likely born from conflict. Male and female G. affinis have opposing relationships between exploratory tendencies and learning, and they also exhibit distinct behavioral predictors (sociability, activity, anxiety, and exploratory behaviors) for individual learning performance. Artificial selection studies suggest that increases in sexual conflict lead to a demand in cognitive processes; and neurogenomic studies reveal that specific brain regions and molecular pathways underlying high and low sexual conflict interactions may differ. While the current body of evidence is still nascent in many respects, I will highlight areas of research in which further investigation with poeciliid fishes can provide insight into the intertwined relationship between sexual conflict and cognition.

Significance statement

Rarely does one consider the benefits of conflict. However, when it comes to sexual conflict, one of the potential benefits it may bring is advances in cognition. I use the poeciliid fishes to showcase this idea as they are both a model for sexual conflict and an experimentally tractable system to test for cognitive variation. I review the current evidence across poeciliid fishes that sexual conflict drives behavioral changes, physiological investment in brain size, and neuromolecular responses within the brain. Furthermore, I examine sexually dimorphic relationships between learning performance and behavioral traits. While all the data reported in this review come from poeciliid fishes, the evolutionarily conserved nature of the decision-making network across vertebrate brains suggests the reported patterns may have relevance to a diversity of vertebrates (including humans) that experience high degrees of sexual conflict.

Keywords

Sexual selection Courtship Coercion Reproductive strategies Coevolution Brain 

Notes

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank three highly constructive and patient reviewers along with all current and previous undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs who have contributed in poeciliid behavioral, cognitive, and neurogenomic research in my lab over the past decade.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed as outlined in our IACUC protocol (AUP-2016-00246).

Data availability

Data sharing not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analyzed during the current study.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of TexasAustinUSA

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