Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 1017–1024
Evolutionary theories of ageing posit that increased reproductive investment occurs at the expense of physiological declines in later life. Males typically invest heavily in costly sexual ornaments and behaviour, but evidence that the expression of these traits can cause senescence is lacking. Long-lived houbara bustards (Chlamydotis undulata) engage in extravagant sexual displays to attract mates and here we show that males investing most in these displays experience a rapid senescent deterioration of spermatogenic function at a younger age. This effect is sufficiently large that the expected links between male ‘showiness’ and fertility reverse in later life, despite ‘showy’ males continuing to display at near maximal levels. We show that our results cannot be explained by the selective disappearance of competitive phenotypes and that they are instead consistent with an early vs. late life trade-off in male reproductive competence, highlighting the potential significance of sexual selection in explaining rates of ageing.