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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

You can't always get what you want: size assortative mating by mutual mate choice as a resolution of sexual conflict

Sebastian A Baldauf*, Harald Kullmann, Stefanie H Schroth, Timo Thünken and Theo CM Bakker

Author Affiliations

Institute for Evolutionary Biology and Ecology, University of Bonn, An der Immenburg 1, D-53121 Bonn, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:129  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-129

Published: 10 June 2009

Abstract

Background

Assortative mating patterns for mate quality traits like body size are often observed in nature. However, the underlying mechanisms that cause assortative mating patterns are less well known. Sexual selection is one important explanation for assortment, suggesting that i) one (usually the female) or both sexes could show preferences for mates of similar size or ii) mutual mate choice could resolve sexual conflict over quality traits into assortment. We tested these hypotheses experimentally in the socially monogamous cichlid fish Pelvicachromis taeniatus, in which mate choice is mutual.

Results

In mate choice experiments, both sexes preferred large mates irrespective of own body size suggesting mating preferences are not size-assortative. Especially males were highly selective for large females, probably because female body size signals direct fitness benefits. However, when potential mates were able to interact and assess each other mutually they showed size-assortative mating patterns, i.e. the likelihood to mate was higher in pairs with low size differences between mates.

Conclusion

Due to variation in body size, general preferences for large mating partners result in a sexual conflict: small, lower quality individuals who prefer themselves large partners are unacceptable for larger individuals. Relative size mismatches between mates translate into a lower likelihood to mate, suggesting that the threshold to accept mates depends on own body size. These results suggest that the underlying mechanism of assortment in P. taeniatus is mutual mate choice resolving the sexual conflict over mates, rather than preference for mates of similar size.