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Sexual selection on receptor organ traits: younger females attract males with longer antennae


Sexual selection theory predicts that female choice may favour the evolution of elaborate male signals. Darwin also suggested that sexual selection can favour elaborate receiver structures in order to better detect sexual signals, an idea that has been largely ignored. We evaluated this unorthodox perspective by documenting the antennal lengths of male Uraba lugens Walker (Lepidoptera: Nolidae) moths that were attracted to experimentally manipulated emissions of female sex pheromone. Either one or two females were placed in field traps for the duration of their adult lives in order to create differences in the quantity of pheromone emissions from the traps. The mean antennal length of males attracted to field traps baited with a single female was longer than that of males attracted to traps baited with two females, a pattern consistent with Darwin’s prediction assuming the latter emits higher pheromone concentrations. Furthermore, younger females attracted males with longer antennae, which may reflect age-specific changes in pheromone emission. These field experiments provide the first direct evidence of an unappreciated role for sexual selection in the evolution of sexual dimorphism in moth antennae and raise the intriguing possibility that females select males with longer antennae through strategic emission of pheromones.

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T.L.J., M.R.E.S. and M.A.E. conceived the project, analysed the data and prepared the manuscript. T.L.J. collected the data.

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Correspondence to Tamara L. Johnson.

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The data supporting this article have been uploaded as part of the supplementary material.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


Australian Research Council (DP0987360) to MAE.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Johnson, T.L., Symonds, M.R.E. & Elgar, M.A. Sexual selection on receptor organ traits: younger females attract males with longer antennae. Sci Nat 104, 44 (2017).

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  • Sexual selection
  • Sex pheromones
  • Antenna morphology
  • Mate choice
  • Chemical signals