Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Predator-induced changes of female mating preferences: innate and experiential effects

David Bierbach1*, Matthias Schulte2, Nina Herrmann2, Michael Tobler3, Stefan Stadler1, Christian T Jung1, Benjamin Kunkel1, Rüdiger Riesch4, Sebastian Klaus5, Madlen Ziege1, Jeane Rimber Indy6, Lenin Arias-Rodriguez6 and Martin Plath1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Ecology & Evolution, J.W. Goethe University Frankfurt, Siesmayerstrasse 70-72, D-60054 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

2 Institute of Biochemistry & Biology, Unit of Animal Ecology, University of Potsdam, Maulbeerallee 1, 14469 Potsdam, Germany

3 Department of Zoology, Oklahoma State University, 501 Life Sciences West, Stillwater, OK 74078, USA

4 Department of Biology & W. M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology, North Carolina State University, 127 David Clark Labs, Raleigh, NC 27695-7617, USA

5 Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, 14 Science Drive 4, Singapore 117543

6 División Académica de Ciencias Biológicas, Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco (UJAT), C.P. 86150 Villahermosa, Tabasco, México

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:190  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-190

Published: 4 July 2011



In many species males face a higher predation risk than females because males display elaborate traits that evolved under sexual selection, which may attract not only females but also predators. Females are, therefore, predicted to avoid such conspicuous males under predation risk. The present study was designed to investigate predator-induced changes of female mating preferences in Atlantic mollies (Poecilia mexicana). Males of this species show a pronounced polymorphism in body size and coloration, and females prefer large, colorful males in the absence of predators.


In dichotomous choice tests predator-naïve (lab-reared) females altered their initial preference for larger males in the presence of the cichlid Cichlasoma salvini, a natural predator of P. mexicana, and preferred small males instead. This effect was considerably weaker when females were confronted visually with the non-piscivorous cichlid Vieja bifasciata or the introduced non-piscivorous Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus). In contrast, predator experienced (wild-caught) females did not respond to the same extent to the presence of a predator, most likely due to a learned ability to evaluate their predators' motivation to prey.


Our study highlights that (a) predatory fish can have a profound influence on the expression of mating preferences of their prey (thus potentially affecting the strength of sexual selection), and females may alter their mate choice behavior strategically to reduce their own exposure to predators. (b) Prey species can evolve visual predator recognition mechanisms and alter their mate choice only when a natural predator is present. (c) Finally, experiential effects can play an important role, and prey species may learn to evaluate the motivational state of their predators.

Sexual selection; female choice; non-independent mate choice; predator recognition; Poecilia mexicana