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Do Antlers Honestly Advertise the Phenotypic Quality of Fallow Buck (Dama dama) in a Lekking Population?


Simone Ciuti, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, T6G 2E9 Edmonton, Canada. E-mail:


Size and symmetry of secondary sexual traits are supposed to be honest signals of male phenotypic quality in vertebrates. Antler size and symmetry, male quality and mating success have not been fully demonstrated to be correlated in cervids. Such correlations can be particularly intriguing in the case of species adopting costly mating strategies, which imply territorial defence without feeding. In these cases, body condition appears to be crucial at the onset of the rut, and large and symmetrical antlers may be borne by successful males. For these reasons, during four consecutive years, we analysed growth rate, size and symmetry of 26 fallow bucks’ antlers in relation to individual mating strategy and success in a lekking population. Territorial (T) males, which gained higher mating success in the lek, showed a faster antler growth (about 10 g/d per antler) than non-territorial (NT) males (3.6–5.2 g/d per antler) during the velvet period, and this was likely because of optimized foraging strategies. At the onset of the rut, when antler growth was completed, T males had larger antlers than NT males. Possibly because of worsened body conditions, NT males showed a pronounced antler directional asymmetry, while T males did not. However, no direct link between antler symmetry and mating success was found, thus confirming the ambiguous role of antler asymmetry as an indicator of fitness. The faster the antler growth, the larger its final size and the higher its beholder’s mating success. Our results confirmed that, like groaning and scent marking, antler size reflects social status and dominance in male fallow deer, and therefore represents an honest advertisement of phenotypic quality.