Maintenance of genetic variation in sexual ornaments: a review of the mechanisms

Genetica. 2008 Sep;134(1):113-27. doi: 10.1007/s10709-007-9203-0. Epub 2007 Sep 15.


Female preferences for elaborate male sexual traits have been documented in a number of species in which males contribute only genes to the next generation. In such systems, mate choice has been hypothesised to benefit females genetically. For the genetic benefits to be possible there must be additive genetic variation (V A) for sexual ornaments, such that highly ornamented males can pass fitter genes on to the progeny of choosy females. Here, I review the mechanisms that can contribute to the maintenance of this variation. The variation may be limited to sexual ornaments, resulting in Fisherian benefits in terms of the increased reproductive success of male progeny produced by choosy females. Alternatively, ornaments may capture V A in other life-history traits. In the latter case, "good genes" benefits may apply in terms of improved performance of the progeny of either sex. Some mechanisms, however, such as negative pleiotropy, sexually antagonistic variation or overdominance, can maintain V A in ornaments and other life-history traits with little variation in total fitness, leaving little room for any genetic benefits of mate choice. Distinguishing between these mechanisms has consequences not only for the theory of sexual selection, but also for evolution of sex and for biological conservation. I discuss how the traditional ways of testing for genetic benefits can usefully be supplemented by tests detecting benefits resulting from specific mechanisms maintaining V A in sexual ornaments.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mutation
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal* / physiology