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Keywords:

  • allometry;
  • male dimorphism;
  • Onthophagus;
  • plasticity;
  • polyphenism

The existence of discrete phenotypic variation within one sex poses interesting questions regarding how such intrasexual polymorphisms are produced and modified during the course of evolution. Approaching these kinds of questions requires insights into the genetic architecture underlying a polymorphism and an understanding of the proximate mechanisms determining phenotype expression. Here we explore the genetic underpinnings and proximate factors influencing the expression of beetle horns – a dramatic sexually selected trait exhibiting intramale dimorphism in many species. Two relatively discrete male morphs are present in natural populations of the dung beetle Onthophagus taurus (Scarabaeidae, Onthophagini). Males exceeding a critical body size develop a pair of long, curved horns on their heads, while those smaller than this critical body size remain essentially hornless. We present results from laboratory breeding experiments designed to assess the relative importance of inherited and environmental factors as determinants of male morphology. Using father–son regressions, our findings demonstrate that horn length and body size of male progeny are not predicted from paternal morphology. Instead, natural variation in an environmental factor, the amount of food available to larvae, determined both the body sizes exhibited by males as adults and the presence or absence of horns. The nonlinear scaling relationship between the body size and horn length of males bred in the laboratory did not differ from the pattern of variation present in natural populations, suggesting that nutritional conditions account for variation in male morphology in natural populations as well. We discuss our results by extending ideas proposed to explain the evolution of conditional expression of alternative phenotypes in physically heterogeneous environments toward incorporating facultative expression of secondary sexual traits. We use this synthesis to begin characterizing the potential origin and subsequent evolution of facultative horn expression in onthophagine beetles.