Mate-choice copying in sailfin molly females: public information use from long-distance interactions

  • Stefanie GierszewskiEmail author
  • Melissa Keil
  • Klaudia Witte
Original Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. From sensory perception to behavior


Animals may use public information gained by observing sexual interactions between conspecifics and use this information for their own mate choice. This strategy, called mate-choice copying, is considered to play an important role for the evolution of mate preferences. Mate-choice copying is defined as non-independent mate choice, in which a female’s probability of choosing a given male increases if other females have chosen that male previously. Using the livebearing sailfin molly (Poecilia latipinna), we asked if increasing the distance between a model female and a male would affect copying behaviour of focal females. We tested focal females in two different treatments: (1) model female and male in close proximity and able to interact at close range and (2) model female and male positioned apart from each other and restricted from close-range interactions. We could show that focal females copied the choice of a model at short distance to the prior non-preferred male as predicted from previous experiments. Surprisingly, focal females also copied the choice of a model when positioned 40 cm apart from the male. When no model female and, hence, no public information were provided (choice consistency control), focal females were consistent in their mate choice, indicating that changes in mate preference observed in the two treatments were due to the simulated mate choice of the model female. Our results demonstrate that females gain and use public information and copy the mate choice of other females even when heterosexual conspecifics interact from a distance.

Significance statement

Animals can copy the mate choice of conspecifics by observing their sexual interactions and, hence, choose the same mate as the other individual did before. So far, mate-choice copying was investigated when the so-called model female and the male were in close proximity. Here, we investigated whether female sailfin mollies (Poecilia latipinna) copy the choice of a model female for a male when the model female can only interact with a male at distance. We show for the first time that even interactions of heterosexual conspecifics at distance provide public information for an observing focal female to copy the choice of the model. Our results imply an even wider information transfer in sailfin molly social networks than previously thought.


Mate-choice copying Public information Distance Sailfin molly Poeciliidae 



We thank Frank Gierszewski for helping with the experimental setup, Derek Baker and Anna Beasley for proofreading the manuscript and Katja Heubel as well as two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on a previous version of this manuscript.

Funding information

This study was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft with a grant to SG and KW (WI 1531/12-1).

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical approval

The performed experiments and handling of the fish were in line with the German Animal Welfare legislation (Deutsches Tierschutzgesetz) and approved by the internal animal welfare officer Dr. Urs Gießelmann, University of Siegen, and the regional authorities (Kreisveterinäramt Siegen-Wittgenstein; Dr. Wilhelm Pelger; Permit number: 53.6 55-05).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Data accessibility statement

All data generated or analysed during this study are included in the supplementary material (Table S1).

Supplementary material

265_2018_2441_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (2.8 mb)
ESM 1 (PDF 2.76 mb)
265_2018_2441_MOESM2_ESM.xlsx (26 kb)
ESM 2 (XLSX 25.5 kb)


  1. Agrawal A (2001) The evolutionary consequences of mate copying on male traits. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 51(1):33–40. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alonzo SH (2008) Female mate choice copying affects sexual selection in wild populations of the ocellated wrasse. Anim Behav 75(5):1715–1723. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Amlacher J, Dugatkin LA (2005) Preference for older over younger models during mate-choice copying in young guppies. Ethol Ecol Evol 17(2):161–169. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Andersson S (1989) Sexual selection and cues for female choice in leks of Jackson’s widowbird Euplectes jacksoni. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 25(6):403–410. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Auld HL, Godin J-GJ (2015) Sexual voyeurs and copiers: social copying and the audience effect on male mate choice in the guppy. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 69(11):1795–1807. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baird RC (1974) Aspects of social behavior in Poecilia latipinna (Lesueur). Rev Biol Trop 21:399–416Google Scholar
  7. Basolo AL (2002) Congruence between the sexes in preexisting receiver responses. Behav Ecol 13(6):832–837. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Berglund A (1993) Risky sex: male pipefishes mate at random in the presence of a predator. Anim Behav 46(1):169–175. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bierbach D, Kronmarck C, Hennige-Schulz C, Stadler S, Plath M (2011) Sperm competition risk affects male mate choice copying. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 65(9):1699–1707. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bierbach D, Jung CT, Hornung S, Streit B, Plath M (2013) Homosexual behaviour increases male attractiveness to females. Biol Lett 9:20121038PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bischoff RJ, Gould JL, Rubenstein DI (1985) Tail size and female choice in the guppy (Poecilia reticulata). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 46:169–175Google Scholar
  12. Clark CW, Mangel M (1986) The evolutionary advantages of group foraging. Theor Popul Biol 30(1):45–75. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Croft DP, James R, Krause J (2008) Exploring animal social networks. Princeton University Press, Princeton. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dagaeff A-C, Pocheville A, Nöbel S, Loyau A, Isabel G, Danchin É (2016) Drosophila mate copying correlates with atmospheric pressure in a speed learning situation. Anim Behav 121:163–174. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dall SRX, Giraldeau A-L, Olsson O, McNamara JM, Stephens DW (2005) Information and its use by animals in evolutionary ecology. Trends Ecol Evol 20(4):187–193. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Danchin É, Giraldeau L-A, Valone TJ, Wagner RH (2004) Public information: from nosy neighbors to cultural evolution. Science 305(5683):487–491. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Danchin É, Charmantier A, Champagne FA, Mesoudi A, Pujol B, Blanchet S (2011) Beyond DNA: integrating inclusive inheritance into an extended theory of evolution. Nat Rev Genet 12(7):475–486. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dugatkin LA (1992) Sexual selection and imitation: females copy the mate choice of others. Am Nat 139(6):1384–1389. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dugatkin LA (1996) Interface between culturally based preferences and genetic preferences: female mate choice in Poecilia reticulata. P Natl Acad Sci USA 93(7):2770–2773. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Dugatkin LA (1998) Genes, copying and female mate choice: shifting thresholds. Behav Ecol 9(4):323–327. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dugatkin LA, Godin J-GJ (1993) Female mate copying in the guppy (Poecilia reticulata): age-dependent effects. Behav Ecol 4(4):289–292. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Engström-Öst J, Candolin U (2007) Human-induced water turbidity alters selection on sexual displays in sticklebacks. Behav Ecol 18(2):393–398. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fernández-Juricic E, Kacelnik A (2004) Information transfer and gain in flocks: the effects of quality and quantity of social information at different neighbour distances. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 55(5):502–511. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Forsgren E (1992) Predation risk affects mate choice in a gobiid fish. Am Nat 140(6):1041–1049. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Frommen JG, Rahn AK, Schroth SH, Waltschyk N, Bakker TCM (2009) Mate-choice copying when both sexes face high costs of reproduction. Evol Ecol 23(3):435–446. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Galef BG Jr, White DJ (1998) Mate-choice copying in Japanese quail, Coturnix coturnix japonica. Anim Behav 55(3):545–552. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Galef BG Jr, Lim TCW, Gilbert GS (2008) Evidence of mate choice copying in Norway rats, Rattus norvegicus. Anim Behav 75(3):1117–1123. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gierszewski S, Müller K, Smielik I, Hütwohl JM, Kuhnert KD, Witte K (2017) The virtual lover: variable and easily guided 3D fish animations as an innovative tool in mate-choice experiments with sailfin mollies—II. Validation. Curr Zool 63(1):65–74. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Giraldeau L-A, Soos C, Beauchamp G (1994) A test of the producer-scrounger foraging game in captive flocks of spice finches, Lonchura punctulata. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 34(4):251–256. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Godin J-GJ, Hair KPE (2009) Mate-choice copying in free-ranging Trinidadian guppies (Poecilia reticulata). Behaviour 146(10):1443–1461. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Godin J-GJ, Herdman EJE, Dugatkin LA (2005) Social influences on female mate choice in the guppy, Poecilia reticulata: generalized and repeatable trait-copying behavior. Anim Behav 69(4):999–1005. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Goulet D, Goulet TL (2006) Nonindependent mating in a coral reef damselfish: evidence of mate choice copying in the wild. Behav Ecol 17(6):998–1003. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Heubel KU (2004) Population ecology and sexual preferences in the mating complex of the unisexual Amazon molly Poecilia formosa (GIRARD, 1859). PhD thesis, University of Hamburg,
  34. Heubel KU, Schlupp I (2006) Turbidity affects association behaviour in male Poecilia latipinna. J Fish Biol 68(2):555–568. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Heubel KU, Hornhardt K, Ollmann T, Parzefall J, Ryan MJ, Schlupp I (2008) Geographic variation in female mate-copying in the species complex of a unisexual fish, Poecilia formosa. Behaviour 145(8):1041–1064. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hill SE, Ryan MJ (2006) The role of model female quality in the mate choice copying behaviour of sailfin mollies. Biol Lett 2(2):203–205. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Ioannou CC, Couzin ID, James R, Croft DP, Krause J (2011) Social organisation and information transfer in schooling fish. In: Brown C, Laland K, Krause J (eds) Fish Cognition and Behavior, 2nd edn. Wiley-Blackwell, New York, pp 217–239. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kniel N, Dürler C, Hecht I, Heinbach V, Zimmermann L, Witte K (2015a) Novel mate preference through mate-choice copying in zebra finches: sexes differ. Behav Ecol 26(2):647–655. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kniel N, Schmitz J, Witte K (2015b) Quality of public information matters in mate-choice copying in female zebra finches. Front Zool 12(1):26. PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kniel N, Müller K, Witte K (2017) The role of the model in mate-choice copying in female zebra finches. Ethology 123(6-7):412–418. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kodric-Brown A (1993) Female choice of multiple male criteria in guppies: interacting effects of dominance, coloration and courtship. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 32(6):415–420. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ladich F (2004) Sound production and acoustic communication. In: von der Emde G, Mogdans J, Kapoor BG (eds) The senses of fish. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 210–230. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Long KD, Rosenqvist G (1998) Changes in male guppy courting distance in response to a fluctuating light environment. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 44(2):77–83. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. MacLaren RD (2006) The effects of male proximity, apparent size, and absolute size on female preference in the sailfin molly, Poecilia latipinna. Behaviour 143(12):1457–1472. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Marler CA, Ryan MJ (1997) Origin and maintenance of a female mating preference. Evolution 51(4):1244–1248. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Meffe GK, Snelson FF (1989) Ecology and evolution of livebearing fishes (Poeciliidae). Prentice Hall, Englewood CliffsGoogle Scholar
  47. Mery F, Varela SAM, Danchin É, Blanchet S, Parejo D, Coolen I, Wagner RH (2009) Public versus personal information for mate copying in an invertebrate. Curr Biol 19(9):730–734. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Moran RL, von Ende CN, King BH (2013) Mate choice copying in two species of darters (Percidae: Etheostoma). Behaviour 150(11):1255–1274. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Munger L, Cruz A, Applebaum S (2004) Mate choice copying in female humpback limia (Limia nigrofasciata, family Poeciliidae). Ethology 110(7):563–573. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Naguib M, Haven-Wiley R (2001) Estimating the distance to a source of sound: mechanisms and adaptations for long-range communication. Anim Behav 62(5):825–837. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Nöbel S, Witte K (2013) Public information influences sperm transfer to females in sailfin molly males. PLoS One 8(1):e53865. PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nordell SE, Valone TJ (1998) Mate choice copying as public information. Ecol Lett 1(2):74–76. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Parzefall J (1969) Zur vergleichenden Ethologie verschiedener Mollienesia-Arten einschliesslich einer Höhlenform von M. sphenops. Behaviour 33(1):1–38. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Place SS, Todd PM, Penke L, Asendorpf JB (2010) Humans show mate copying after observing real mate choices. Evol Hum Behav 31(5):320–325. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Plath M, Bierbach D (2011) Sex and the public: social eavesdropping, sperm competition risk and male mate choice. Commun Integr Biol 4(3):276–280. PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Pruett-Jones S (1992) Independent versus nonindependent mate choice: do females copy each other? Am Nat 140(6):1000–1009. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Schlupp I, Ryan MJ (1997) Male sailfin mollies (Poecilia latipinna) copy the mate choice of other males. Behav Ecol 8(1):104–107. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Schlupp I, Marler C, Ryan MJ (1994) Benefit to male sailfin mollies of mating with heterospecific females. Science 263(5145):373–374. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Shorey HH (2013) Animal communication by pheromones. Academic Press Inc., New YorkGoogle Scholar
  60. Travis J (1994) The interplay of life-history variation and sexual selection in sailfin mollies. In: Real LA (ed) Ecological genetics. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, pp 205–232Google Scholar
  61. Valone TJ (1989) Group foraging, public information, and patch estimation. Oikos 56(3):357–363. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Valone TJ (2007) From eavesdropping on performance to copying the behavior of others: a review of public information use. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 62(1):1–14. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Valone TJ, Templeton JJ (2002) Public information for the assessment of quality: a widespread social phenomenon. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 357(1427):1549–1557. PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Verzijden MN, ten Cate C, Servedio MR, Kozak GM, Boughman JW, Svensson EI (2012) The impact of learning on sexual selection and speciation. Trends Ecol Evol 27(9):511–519. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Vukomanovic J, Rodd FH (2007) Size-dependent female mate copying in the guppy (Poecilia reticulata): large females are role models but small ones are not. Ethology 113(6):579–586. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Waynforth D (2007) Mate choice copying in humans. Hum Nat 18(3):264–271. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Westneat DF, Walters A, McCarthy TM, Hatch M, Hein WK (2000) Alternative mechanisms of nonindependent mate choice. Anim Behav 59(3):467–476. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. White DJ, Galef BG (2000) Differences between the sexes in direction and duration of response to seeing a potential sex partner mate with another. Anim Behav 59(6):1235–1240. PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Widemo MS (2006) Male but not female pipefish copy mate choice. Behav Ecol 17(2):255–259. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Witte K, Klink KB (2005) No pre-existing bias in sailfin molly females, Poecilia latipinna, for a sword in males. Behaviour 142(3):283–303. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Witte K, Massmann R (2003) Female sailfin mollies, Poecilia latipinna, remember males and copy the choice of others after 1 day. Anim Behav 65(6):1151–1159. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Witte K, Nöbel S (2011) Learning and mate choice. In: Brown C, Laland K, Krause J (eds) Fish cognition and behavior, 2nd edn. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford, pp 81–107. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Witte K, Noltemeier B (2002) The role of information in mate-choice copying in female sailfin mollies (Poecilia latipinna). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 52(3):194–202. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Witte K, Ryan MJ (1998) Male body length influences mate-choice copying in the sailfin molly Poecilia latipinna. Behav Ecol 9(5):534–539. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Witte K, Ryan MJ (2002) Mate choice copying in the sailfin molly, Poecilia latipinna, in the wild. Anim Behav 63(5):943–949. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Witte K, Ueding K (2003) Sailfin molly females (Poecilia latipinna) copy the rejection of a male. Behav Ecol 14(3):389–395. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Witte K, Kniel N, Kureck IM (2015) Mate-choice copying: status quo and where to go. Curr Zool 61(6):1073–1081. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

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

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Group of Ecology and Behavioral BiologyInstitute of Biology, University of SiegenSiegenGermany

Personalised recommendations