Open Access Open Badges Research article

Negative frequency-dependent selection or alternative reproductive tactics: maintenance of female polymorphism in natural populations

Arne Iserbyt1*, Jessica Bots1, Hans Van Gossum1 and Thomas N Sherratt2

Author affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Antwerp, Evolutionary Ecology Group, Groenenborgerlaan 171, Antwerp, BE-2020, Belgium

2 Department of Biology, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, ON, K1S 5B6, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:139  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-139

Published: 3 July 2013



Sex-limited polymorphisms have long intrigued evolutionary biologists and have been the subject of long-standing debates. The coexistence of multiple male and/or female morphs is widely believed to be maintained through negative frequency-dependent selection imposed by social interactions. However, remarkably few empirical studies have evaluated how social interactions, morph frequencies and fitness parameters relate to one another under natural conditions. Here, we test two hypotheses proposed to explain the maintenance of a female polymorphism in a species with extreme geographical variation in morph frequencies. We first elucidate how fecundity traits of the morphs vary in relation to the frequencies and densities of males and female morphs in multiple sites over multiple years. Second, we evaluate whether the two female morphs differ in resource allocation among fecundity traits, indicating alternative tactics to maximize reproductive output.


We present some of the first empirical evidence collected under natural conditions that egg number and clutch mass was higher in the rarer female morph. This morph-specific fecundity advantage gradually switched with the population morph frequency. Our results further indicate that all investigated fecundity traits are negatively affected by relative male density (i.e. operational sex ratio), which confirms male harassment as selective agent. Finally, we show a clear trade-off between qualitative (egg mass) and quantitative (egg number) fecundity traits. This trade-off, however, is not morph-specific.


Our reported frequency- and density-dependent fecundity patterns are consistent with the hypothesis that the polymorphism is driven by a conflict between sexes over optimal mating rate, with costly male sexual harassment driving negative frequency-dependent selection on morph fecundity.

Alternative reproductive tactics; Colour polymorphism; Fitness; Male harassment; Odonata; Quantity-quality trade-off; Sexual conflict