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Open Access Open Badges Research article

The relative nature of fertilization success: Implications for the study of post-copulatory sexual selection

Francisco García-González

Author Affiliations

Centre for Evolutionary Biology, School of Animal Biology (M092), The University of Western Australia, Nedlands, WA 6009, Australia

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:140  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-140

Published: 12 May 2008



The determination of genetic variation in sperm competitive ability is fundamental to distinguish between post-copulatory sexual selection models based on good-genes vs compatible genes. The sexy-sperm and the good-sperm hypotheses for the evolution of polyandry require additive (intrinsic) effects of genes influencing sperm competitiveness, whereas the genetic incompatibility hypothesis invokes non-additive genetic effects. A male's sperm competitive ability is typically estimated from his fertilization success, a measure that is dependent on the ability of rival sperm competitors to fertilize the ova. It is well known that fertilization success may be conditional to genotypic interactions among males as well as between males and females. However, the consequences of effects arising from the random sampling of sperm competitors upon the estimation of genetic variance in sperm competitiveness have been overlooked. Here I perform simulations of mating trials performed in the context of sibling analysis to investigate whether the ability to detect additive genetic variance underlying the sperm competitiveness phenotype is hindered by the relative nature of fertilization success measurements.


Fertilization success values render biased sperm competitive ability values. Furthermore, asymmetries among males in the errors committed when estimating sperm competitive abilities are likely to exist as long as males exhibit variation in sperm competitiveness. Critically, random effects arising from the relative nature of fertilization success lead to an underestimation of underlying additive genetic variance in sperm competitive ability.


The results show that, regardless of the existence of genotypic interactions affecting the output of sperm competition, fertilization success is not a perfect predictor of sperm competitive ability because of the stochasticity of the background used to obtain fertilization success measures. Random effects need to be considered in the debate over the maintenance of genetic variation in sperm competitiveness, and when testing good-genes and compatible-genes processes as explanations of polyandrous behaviour using repeatability/heritability data in sperm competitive ability. These findings support the notion that the genetic incompatibility hypothesis needs to be treated as an alternative hypothesis, rather than a null hypothesis, in studies that fail to detect intrinsic sire effects on the sperm competitiveness phenotype.