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Keywords:

  • adaptation;
  • environmental change;
  • eutrophication;
  • mate choice;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • sexual displays

Abstract

Environmental heterogeneity can cause the intensity and direction of selection to vary in time and space. Yet, the effects of human-induced environmental changes on sexual selection and the expression of mating traits of native species are poorly known. Currently, the breeding habitats of the three-spined sticklebackGasterosteus aculeatus are changing in the Baltic Sea because of eutrophication and increased growth of algae. Here we show that enhanced growth of filamentous algae increases the costs of mating by inducing an increase in the time and energy spent on courtship and mate choice. This is not followed by a concomitant increase in mate attraction, but instead the strength of selection on male red nuptial coloration and courtship activity is relaxed. Thus, the high investment into the costly sexually selected traits is maladaptive under the new conditions, and the mating system mediates a negative effect of the environmental change on the population. We attribute these environmentally induced changes in the benefit of the mating traits and in the strength of sexual selection to reduced visibility in dense vegetation. Anthropogenic disturbances hence affect the selection pressures that mould the species, which could have long-term effects on the viability and evolution of the populations.