Following Darwin's original insights regarding sexual selection, studies of intrasexual competition have mainly focused on male competition for mates; by contrast, female reproductive competition has received less attention. Here, we review evidence that female mammals compete for both resources and mates in order to secure reproductive benefits. We describe how females compete for resources such as food, nest sites, and protection by means of dominance relationships, territoriality and inter-group aggression, and by inhibiting the reproduction of other females. We also describe evidence that female mammals compete for mates and consider the ultimate causes of such behaviour, including competition for access to resources provided by mates, sperm limitation and prevention of future resource competition. Our review reveals female competition to be a potentially widespread and significant evolutionary selection pressure among mammals, particularly competition for resources among social species for which most evidence is currently available.
We report that female competition is associated with many diverse adaptations, from overtly aggressive behaviour, weaponry, and conspicuous sexual signals to subtle and often complex social behaviour involving olfactory signalling, alliance formation, altruism and spite, and even cases where individuals appear to inhibit their own reproduction. Overall, despite some obvious parallels with male phenotypic traits favoured under sexual selection, it appears that fundamental differences in the reproductive strategies of the sexes (ultimately related to parental investment) commonly lead to contrasting competitive goals and adaptations. Because female adaptations for intrasexual competition are often less conspicuous than those of males, they are generally more challenging to study. In particular, since females often employ competitive strategies that directly influence not only the number but also the quality (survival and reproductive success) of their own offspring, as well as the relative reproductive success of others, a multigenerational view ideally is required to quantify the full extent of variation in female fitness resulting from intrasexual competition. Nonetheless, current evidence indicates that the reproductive success of female mammals can also be highly variable over shorter time scales, with significant reproductive skew related to competitive ability.
Whether we choose to describe the outcome of female reproductive competition (competition for mates, for mates controlling resources, or for resources per se) as sexual selection depends on how sexual selection is defined. Considering sexual selection strictly as resulting from differential mating or fertilisation success, the role of female competition for the sperm of preferred (or competitively successful) males appears particularly worthy of more detailed investigation. Broader definitions of sexual selection have recently been proposed to encompass the impact on reproduction of competition for resources other than mates. Although the merits of such definitions are a matter of ongoing debate, our review highlights that understanding the evolutionary causes and consequences of female reproductive competition indeed requires a broader perspective than has traditionally been assumed. We conclude that future research in this field offers much exciting potential to address new and fundamentally important questions relating to social and mating-system evolution.