A molecular genetic examination of the mating system of pumpkinseed sunfish reveals high pay-offs for specialized sneakers



    1. Department of Biological Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260, USA,
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    1. Department of Biological Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260, USA,
    2. School of Biological Sciences and Center for Reproductive Biology, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-4236, USA, and Center for Tropical Research, Institute of the Environment, University of California at Los Angeles, La Kretz Hall, Suite 300, Box 951496, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA
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O. Rios-Cardenas, Departamento de Biología Evolutiva, Instituto de Ecología, A.C., Km 2.5 Carretera Antigua a Coatepec No. 351, Ap. Postal 63, Congregación El Haya, Xalapa, 91070 Veracruz, México. Fax: 52(228) 818-7809; E-mail:


Intrasexual variation in reproductive behaviour and morphology are common in nature. Often, such variation appears to result from conditional strategies in which some individuals (e.g. younger males or those in poor condition) adopt a low pay-off phenotype as a ‘best of a bad job’. Alternatively, reproductive polymorphisms can be maintained by balancing selection, with male phenotypes having equal fitnesses at equilibrium, but examples from nature are rare. Many species of sunfish (genus Lepomis) are thought to have alternative male reproductive behaviours, but most empirical work has focused on the bluegill sunfish and the mating systems of other sunfish remain poorly understood. We studied a population of pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus) in upstate New York. Field observations confirm the existence of two male reproductive strategies: ‘parentals’ were relatively old and large males that maintained nests, and ‘sneakers’ were relatively young and small males that fertilize eggs by darting into nests of parentals during spawning. The sneaker and parental male strategies appear to be distinct life-history trajectories. Sneaker males represented 39% of the males observed spawning, and sneakers intruded on 43% of all mating attempts. Microsatellite analyses revealed that sneaker males fertilized an average of 15% of the eggs within a nest. This level of paternity by sneaker males appears to be higher than seen in most other fishes, and preliminary analyses suggest that the two male reproductive strategies are maintained as a balanced polymorphism.