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Females prefer males with superior fighting abilities but avoid sexually harassing winners when eavesdropping on male fights

Abstract

Selection imposed by male competition (intrasexual selection) and female choice (intersexual selection) can be con- or discordant. Specifically, females may or may not prefer mating with dominant males, and direct costs of interacting with dominant (and possibly more harassing) males have been suggested to explain avoidance of dominant males. Here, we exemplify that inter- and intrasexual selection may normally act in the same direction, but can be temporarily conflicting when social information becomes available. Using video playback techniques, we presented females of the Mexican livebearing fish Poecilia mexicana with two size-matched males and established association preferences. Half of the females could then observe the same two males fight and establish dominance, while control females saw both males side by side, but physically separated, and female preferences were subsequently re-evaluated. Females in the control group showed a significant preference for future winners in the subsequent testing, confirming an innate or acquired preference for male traits that are indicative of physical superiority, even when body size as a choice criterion is excluded. When allowed to eavesdrop on male fights, however, females did not show a preference for observed winners and even decreased time spent with them relative to the control treatment in which no fight was shown. A subsequent experiment found contest winners to show elevated levels of sexual behavior, so we argue that the temporary offset of the intrinsic female preference for dominant males after having observed a fight is indeed driven by direct costs females expect from more harassing contest winners.

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Acknowledgments

H. Geupel helped with animal care, and P. Slattery and R. Riesch kindly commented on previous manuscript drafts. The present study was financially supported by the research funding program “LOEWE—Landes-Offensive zur Entwicklung Wissenschaftlich-ökonomischer Exzellenz” of Hesse's Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and the Arts, the German Research Foundation (DFG; PL 470/3–1) and the Presidential Office of the J.W. Goethe University of Frankfurt (Nachwuchswissenschaftler im Fokus).

Ethical standards

The experiments reported here comply with the current laws of Germany (approved by Regierungspräsidium Darmstadt V-54-19c-20/15-F104/Anz.18).

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Correspondence to David Bierbach.

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Communicated by J. Frommen

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Bierbach, D., Sassmannshausen, V., Streit, B. et al. Females prefer males with superior fighting abilities but avoid sexually harassing winners when eavesdropping on male fights. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 67, 675–683 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-013-1487-8

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Keywords

  • Female choice
  • Social learning
  • Sexual conflict
  • Non-independent mate choice
  • Male competition