Sperm competition was identified in 1970 as a pervasive selective force in post-copulatory sexual selection that occurs when the ejaculates of different males compete to fertilise a given set of ova. Since then, sperm competition has been much studied both empirically and theoretically. Because sperm competition often favours large ejaculates, an important challenge has been to understand the evolution of strategies through which males invest in sperm production and economise sperm allocation to maximise reproductive success under competitive conditions. Sperm competition mechanisms vary greatly, depending on many factors including the level of sperm competition, space constraints in the sperm competition arena, male mating roles, and female influences on sperm utilisation. Consequently, theoretical models of ejaculate economics are complex and varied, often with apparently conflicting predictions. The goal of this review is to synthesise the theoretical basis of ejaculate economics under sperm competition, aiming to provide empiricists with categorised model assumptions and predictions. We show that apparent contradictions between older and newer models can often be reconciled and there is considerable consensus in the predictions generated by different models. We also discuss qualitative empirical support for some of these predictions, and detail quantitative matches between predictions and observations that exist in the yellow dung fly. We argue that ejaculate economic theory represents a powerful heuristic to explain the diversity in ejaculate traits at multiple levels: across species, across males and within individual males. Future progress requires greater understanding of sperm competition mechanisms, quantification of trade-offs between ejaculate allocation and numbers of matings gained, further knowledge of mechanisms of female sperm selection and their associated costs, further investigation of non-sperm ejaculate effects, and theoretical integration of pre- and post-copulatory episodes of sexual selection.
© 2010 The Authors. Biological Reviews © 2010 Cambridge Philosophical Society.