, Volume 134, Issue 1, pp 113–127 | Cite as

Maintenance of genetic variation in sexual ornaments: a review of the mechanisms



Female preferences for elaborate male sexual traits have been documented in a number of species in which males contribute only genes to the next generation. In such systems, mate choice has been hypothesised to benefit females genetically. For the genetic benefits to be possible there must be additive genetic variation (VA) for sexual ornaments, such that highly ornamented males can pass fitter genes on to the progeny of choosy females. Here, I review the mechanisms that can contribute to the maintenance of this variation. The variation may be limited to sexual ornaments, resulting in Fisherian benefits in terms of the increased reproductive success of male progeny produced by choosy females. Alternatively, ornaments may capture VA in other life-history traits. In the latter case, “good genes” benefits may apply in terms of improved performance of the progeny of either sex. Some mechanisms, however, such as negative pleiotropy, sexually antagonistic variation or overdominance, can maintain VA in ornaments and other life-history traits with little variation in total fitness, leaving little room for any genetic benefits of mate choice. Distinguishing between these mechanisms has consequences not only for the theory of sexual selection, but also for evolution of sex and for biological conservation. I discuss how the traditional ways of testing for genetic benefits can usefully be supplemented by tests detecting benefits resulting from specific mechanisms maintaining VA in sexual ornaments.


Epigamic traits Sexual selection Mate choice Additive genetic variance Ontogenetic conflict Pleiotropy Genetic polymorphism Condition-dependence Mutation Heterozygosity 



I thank Hanna Kokko, Joe Tomkins, Suzie Mills and Michael Puurtinen, guest editor Trevor Pritcher and anonymous referees for their comments on the previous versions of the manuscript, and organizers and participants of “The evolutionary ecology of genetic quality symposium” for inspiration and constructive discussions. This work was supported by a grant from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education 0494/P04/2005/28.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Environmental SciencesJagiellonian UniversityCracow Poland

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