Skip to main page content
Access keys NCBI Homepage MyNCBI Homepage Main Content Main Navigation
, 89 (3), 693-704

Reconciling Competing Ecological Explanations for Sexual Segregation in Ungulates


Reconciling Competing Ecological Explanations for Sexual Segregation in Ungulates

Martin B Main. Ecology.


Sexual segregation in ungulates has important conservation and theoretical implications, but despite numerous studies, the impetus for this behavioral pattern remains a topic of debate. Sexual segregation hypotheses can be broadly grouped into social and ecological explanations, but only ecological explanations can adequately describe why sexes use different areas and habitats. The reproductive strategy hypothesis (RSH) and forage selection hypothesis (FSH) are leading ecological explanations, and although both have received support in the literature, neither the collective basis for that support nor overlap between these hypotheses has been adequately evaluated. This review analyzed seasonal sex comparisons of habitat forage quantity (n=66), quality (n=67), and diet (n=63) from peer-reviewed studies of north temperate ruminants to test predictions of each hypothesis. Empirical data supported predictions of the RSH, but did not support two of three key predictions of the FSH. Males used habitats with greater forage quantity significantly more than females. But, contrary to predictions of the FSH, females did not use habitats with superior forage quality nor consume higher-quality diets more than males. Sexes typically used habitats and consumed diets of similar quality, and when differences were reported, males used higher-quality habitats significantly more than females. Results refute FSH arguments that differences in dietary requirements associated with sexual dimorphism are a universal explanation for sexual segregation in ungulates, but the physiological mechanism on which the FSH is predicated may explain why males consume poorer-quality diets when high-quality forage is scarce. The FSH, therefore, operates at a proximate level because it explains diet and habitat selection by males under certain environmental conditions, but multiple environmental factors may influence sexual segregation, and no single proximate explanation adequately describes this behavioral pattern. The RSH explains sexual segregation as the evolutionary response to differences in reproductive strategies: males choose habitats to maximize energy gains in preparation for rut, and females select habitats with combinations of resources that contribute to offspring survival. Consequently, the RSH provides an ultimate explanation that can be used to explain and interpret studies of sexual segregation in ungulates.

Similar articles

See all similar articles

Cited by 13 articles

See all "Cited by" articles