1. The information content of secondary sexual traits and the benefits gathered by choosy females are at the heart of sexual selection theory. Indicator models of sexual selection assume that secondary sexual traits reflect the phenotypic/genetic quality of their bearers and that females gather benefits from choosing these high-quality males.
2. Here, we tested the idea that courtship display reflects the health status in a bird species with a lek-based mating system, the houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata undulata). A group of males was treated with the lipopolysaccharide (LPS) of the cell wall of the bacterium Escherichia coli during the seasonal peak of courtship display, while another group of males was injected with a phosphate-buffered saline solution (PBS) as a control. We then monitored the effect of the treatment on both courtship display and ejaculate quality. Finally, females were artificially inseminated with semen from LPS and PBS males, which allowed us to assess the effect of the immunological treatment on reproduction.
3. We found that the inflammatory challenge reduced courtship display and semen quality compared to controls. Interestingly, males that better resisted to the immune challenge in terms of courtship display also better resisted in terms of ejaculate quality. Early reproductive failure was increased when females were artificially inseminated with semen from immune-activated males. Failure of eggs laid by females inseminated with LPS semen was due to a reduced fertilization power of sperm of LPS males or to increased embryo mortality in the very early stage of embryo development. As a consequence, hatching rate was reduced for females inseminated with semen collected from LPS males.
4. These results show that by assessing male courtship display, females may gain insight into the current phenotypic/genetic quality of mates and gather fitness benefits in terms of reproductive success.