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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Is female preference for large sexual ornaments due to a bias to escape predation risk?

Zhen Zhu12, Tae Won Kim13* and Jae Chun Choe1*

Author affiliations

1 Laboratory of Behavior and Ecology, Division of EcoSicence, Ewha Womans University, Seoul 120-750, South Korea

2 The Jane Goodall Institute China Office/Roots & Shoots Beijing Office, (Located inside Beijing City International School, Room 1309), No. 77, Bai Zi Wan Nan 2 Rd, Chao Yang District, Beijing, P. R. China

3 Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, 7700 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing CA95039, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:33  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-33

Published: 13 March 2012



A female preference for intense sexual visual signals is widespread in animals. Although the preferences for a signal per se and for the intensity of the signal were often regarded to have the identical origin, no study has demonstrated if this is true. It was suggested that the female fiddler crabs prefer males with courtship structures because of direct benefit to escape predation. Here we tested if female preference for both components (i.e. presence and size) of the courtship structure in Uca lactea is from the sensory bias to escape predation. If both components have the identical origin, females should show the same response to different-sized courtship structures regardless of predation risk.


First, we observed responses of mate-searching female U. lactea to courting males with full-sized, half-sized and no semidomes which were experimentally manipulated. Females had a directional preference for males with bigger semidomes within normal variation. Thereafter, we tested the effect of predation risk on the female bias in the non-courtship context. When threatened by an avian mock predator, females preferentially approached burrows with full-sized semidomes regardless of reproductive cycles (i.e. reproductive periods and non-reproductive periods). When the predator cue was absent, however, females preferred burrows with semidomes without discriminating structure size during reproductive periods but did not show any bias during non-reproductive periods.


Results indicate that selection for the size of courtship structures in U. lactea may have an origin in the function to reduce predation risk, but that the preference for males with structures may have evolved by female choice, independent of predation pressure.