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Keywords:

  • Intralocus genetic conflict;
  • melanin-based coloration;
  • sex ratio;
  • sexual selection;
  • sexually antagonistic selection

Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 616–626

Abstract

Sex-dependent selection often leads to spectacularly different phenotypes in males and females. In species in which sexual dimorphism is not complete, it is unclear which benefits females and males derive from displaying a trait that is typical of the other sex. In barn owls (Tyto alba), females exhibit on average larger black eumelanic spots than males but members of the two sexes display this trait in the same range of possible values. In a 12-year study, we show that selection exerted on spot size directly or on genetically correlated traits strongly favoured females with large spots and weakly favoured males with small spots. Intense directional selection on females caused an increase in spot diameter in the population over the study period. This increase is due to a change in the autosomal genes underlying the expression of eumelanic spots but not of sex-linked genes. Female-like males produced more daughters than sons, while male-like females produced more sons than daughters when mated to a small-spotted male. These sex ratio biases appear adaptive because sons of male-like females and daughters of female-like males had above-average survival. This demonstrates that selection exerted against individuals displaying a trait that is typical of the other sex promoted the evolution of specific life history strategies that enhance their fitness. This may explain why in many organisms sexual dimorphism is often not complete.