• Enchenopa;
  • form of selection;
  • maintenance of variation;
  • mate choice;
  • strength of preference

An individual's prior experience of sexual signals can result in variation in mate preferences, with important consequences for the course of sexual selection. We test two hypotheses about the evolution of experience-mediated plasticity in mate preferences: mating assurance and mismating avoidance. We exposed female Enchenopa binotata treehoppers (Hemiptera: Membracidae) to treatments that varied their experience of signal frequency, the most divergent sexual signal trait in the E. binotata species complex. Treatments consisted of (1) signals matching the preferred frequency, (2–3) signals deviating either 100 Hz above or 100 Hz below the preferred frequency, and (4) no signals. Females experiencing preferred signals showed the greatest selectivity. However, experience had no effect on peak preference. These results support the hypothesis that selection has favored plasticity in mate preferences that ensures that mating takes place when preferred mates are rare or absent, while ensuring choice of preferred types when those are present. We consider how experience-mediated plasticity may influence selection on sexual advertisement signals, patterns of reproductive isolation, and the maintenance of genetic variation. We suggest that the plasticity we describe may increase the likelihood of successful colonization of a novel environment, where preferred mating types may be rare.