Rapid evolution of reproductive barriers driven by sexual conflict

Nature. 2000 Feb 24;403(6772):886-9. doi: 10.1038/35002564.


A growing amount of experimental data indicates extremely rapid evolution of traits and proteins related to fertilization in many diverging taxa. These data come from studies of sperm or pollen competition between closely related species, and from molecular studies of fertilization proteins. The positive selection for evolutionary novelty that appears to be acting on fertilization systems seems paradoxical because successful reproduction requires the close matching of female and male traits. It has been suggested that perpetual coevolution between the sexes can result from sexual conflict in mating. Sexual conflict occurs when characteristics that enhance the reproductive success of one sex reduce the fitness of the other sex. Numerous examples of sexual conflict resulting from sensory exploitation, polyspermy and the cost of mating have been discussed in detail. The potential for coevolution due to such conflict has been evaluated experimentally. Here I develop a simple mathematical model describing coevolutionary dynamics of male and female traits involved in reproduction. The model shows that continual change in such traits at a constant speed is expected whenever females (or eggs) experience fitness loss from having too many compatible males (or sperms). The plausibility of runaway coevolution increases with increasing population size. Rapid evolution of reproductive barriers driven by sexual conflict may explain increased speciation rates after colonization of new habitats ('adaptive radiation') and high species richness in resource-rich environments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Female
  • Germ Cells
  • Male
  • Models, Biological*
  • Reproduction*
  • Sex*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal