A novel method to estimate the spatial scale of mate choice in the wild

  • Daniel Estévez
  • Terence P. T. Ng
  • Mónica Fernández-Meirama
  • Jorien M. Voois
  • Antonio Carvajal-Rodríguez
  • Gray A. Williams
  • Juan Galindo
  • Emilio Rolán-Alvarez
Original Article


Mate choice is a key life history trait and has been widely examined across animal taxa, yet the spatial scale at which animals exercise this choice has rarely been examined. Here we propose a novel method to estimate the spatial scale of mate choice in situ based on a recently developed experimental approach to evaluate, in an unbiased fashion, assortative mating in the wild as a proxy to mate choice. Using mating pairs and the surrounding individuals which were not mating at a particular scale (distance from the mating pair), we correct assortative mating for the known scale-of-choice effect bias due to microgeographical heterogeneity. Appling a linear regression of assortative mating for different scales of correction allows the identification of changes in the scale of choice. In both species, the maximum mate choice │0.35│ occurs at the mating pair position and decreases about 0.35% per cm, which was likely due to the fact that gastropods are slow-moving organisms with limited visual ability, and their mate-searching strategy relies heavily on chemical cues which function over a short distance. The proposed new method can be used to compare species with both positive and negative assortative mating and with mate choice on different traits (e.g. size or colour). As such, we believe that this novel method can be applied to assess the scale of mate choice in other organisms due to the prevalence of assortative mating in the animal kingdom.

Significance statement

Mate choice is a key process in animal evolution, but little is known in relation to the spatial scale at which animals exercise this choice. In several organisms, the choice can be produced by means of visual or vocal cues that can be used by an external observer to study the phenomenon. However, in others, the tactile or olfactory cues are difficult to observe in the wild. We propose a method to detect the strength of assortative mating (as a proxy to mate choice) in the wild. Our method was tested in two snail species, showing that mate choice was exerted at the scale of a few cm, and decreased significantly up to 20 cm from the individual making a choice. The method is beneficial in that it does not require a priori knowledge about the mechanism of mate choice, as it is based on the consequence (i.e. assortative mating) rather than the cause of mate choice, and hence should be applicable to many other species.


Echinolittorina malaccana Littorina fabalis Mating preference Assortative mating Disassortative mating Mating preference 



We thank Mary Riádigos for administrative contributions.

Authors’ contribution

DE performed sampling, dissection and analyses on Littorina fabalis; TPTN and JMV performed sampling, dissection and analyses on Echinolittorina malaccana; MF-M performed modelling on Echinolittorina data; JMV performed size measurements on Echinolittorina; AC-R performed modelling on Littorina; GAW performed sampling on Echinolittorina; JG performed sampling on Littorina fabalis; and ER-A performed sampling in both species, analyzed output data and wrote the first MS draft. All authors contributed substantially to revision and discussion.

Funding information

This work was supported by the Xunta de Galicia (Axudas do programa de consolidación e estruturación de unidades de investigacións competitivas do SUG; ED431C 2016-037), FONDOS FEDER (‘unha maneira de facer europa’) and the Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (CGL2016-75482-P). The study was also partly funded by the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong SAR Government via the General Research Fund (GRF) (grant no.: HKU 17121914 M) to G.A.W.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interests.

Supplementary material

265_2018_2622_Fig5_ESM.png (220 kb)
Supplementary Figure S1

Comparison of Assortative mating estimates and SCE corrections by using weighted or unweighted means of IPSI (Littorina fabalis) or Pearson’s r (Ecchinolittorina malacana). As it can be observed, trends in both graphs of each estimate do not change substantially if using unweighted means. Error bars represent the SE and are greater in unweighted estimates. (PNG 220 kb)

265_2018_2622_MOESM1_ESM.tif (78 mb)
High resolution image (TIF 79873 kb)
265_2018_2622_MOESM2_ESM.xlsx (15 kb)
ESM 2 Supplementary Table S1. The scale of the captured unmated specimens (used to correct the assortative mating estimate) is regressed against the dependent variable SCE (which allow the pooling of different data sets). Four alternative regression models (linear, logarithmic, inverse, quadratic) are compared by the ACAIC criterion. Species and samples as in M&M. N is number of points in the regression. The inverse regression models showed always the smaller value and is therefore the chosen model for the rest of the analysis. Supplementary Table S2. The inverse regression model applied on the different data sets using the parametric (black ink) and bootstrap (blue ink) framework, to show the coincidence in parameter estimation and significance. The statistics r2, a and b represent, correspondingly, the proportion of variance explained, constant and slope in the regressions. (XLSX 15 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel Estévez
    • 1
  • Terence P. T. Ng
    • 2
  • Mónica Fernández-Meirama
    • 1
  • Jorien M. Voois
    • 2
  • Antonio Carvajal-Rodríguez
    • 1
  • Gray A. Williams
    • 2
  • Juan Galindo
    • 1
  • Emilio Rolán-Alvarez
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Departamento de Bioquímica, Genética e Inmunología, Facultad de BiologíaUniversidad de VigoVigoSpain
  2. 2.The Swire Institute of Marine Science and School of Biological SciencesThe University of Hong KongHong KongChina
  3. 3.Centro de Investigación Mariña da Universidade de Vigo (CIM-UVIGO)VigoSpain

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