How important are direct fitness benefits of sexual selection?

Naturwissenschaften. 2001 Oct;88(10):401-15. doi: 10.1007/s001140100255.


Females may choose mates based on the expression of secondary sexual characters that signal direct, material fitness benefits or indirect, genetic fitness benefits. Genetic benefits are acquired in the generation subsequent to that in which mate choice is performed, and the maintenance of genetic variation in viability has been considered a theoretical problem. Consequently, the magnitude of indirect benefits has traditionally been considered to be small. Direct fitness benefits can be maintained without consideration of mechanisms sustaining genetic variability, and they have thus been equated with the default benefits acquired by choosy females. There is, however, still debate as to whether or not males should honestly advertise direct benefits such as their willingness to invest in parental care. We use meta-analysis to estimate the magnitude of direct fitness benefits in terms of fertility, fecundity and two measures of paternal care (feeding rate in birds, hatching rate in male guarding ectotherms) based on an extensive literature survey. The mean coefficients of determination weighted by sample size were 6.3%, 2.3%, 1.3% and 23.6%, respectively. This compares to a mean weighted coefficient of determination of 1.5% for genetic viability benefits in studies of sexual selection. Thus, for several fitness components, direct benefits are only slightly more important than indirect ones arising from female choice. Hatching rate in male guarding ectotherms was by far the most important direct fitness component, explaining almost a quarter of the variance. Our analysis also shows that male sexual advertisements do not always reliably signal direct fitness benefits.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Constitution
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Female
  • Fertility / physiology
  • Male
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology