Variation in mate choice and mating preferences: a review of causes and consequences

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1997 May;72(2):283-327. doi: 10.1017/s0006323196005014.


The aim of this review is to consider variation in mating preferences among females. We define mating preferences as the sensory and behavioural properties that influence the propensity of individuals to mate with certain phenotypes. Two properties of mating preferences can be distinguished: (1) "preference functions'-the order with which an individual ranks prospective mates and (2) "choosiness'-the effort an individual is prepared to invest in mate assessment. Patterns of mate choices can be altered by changing the costs of choosiness without altering the preference function. We discuss why it is important to study variation in female mating behaviour and identify five main areas of interest: Variation in mating preferences and costs of choosiness could (1) influence the rate and direction of evolution by sexual selection, (2) provide information about the evolutionary history of female preferences, (3) help explain inter-specific differences in the evolution of secondary sexual characteristics, (4) provide information about the level of benefits gained from mate choice, (5) provide information about the underlying mechanisms of mate choice. Variation in mate choice could be due to variability in preference functions, degree of choosiness, or both, and may arise due to genetic differences, developmental trajectories or proximate environmental factors. We review the evidence for genetic variation from genetic studies of heritability and also from data on the repeatability of mate-choice decisions (which can provide information about the upper limits to heritability). There can be problems in interpreting patterns of mate choice in terms of variation in mating preferences and we illustrate two main points. First, some factors can lead to mate choice patterns that mimic heritable variation in preferences and secondly other factors may obscure heritable preferences. These factors are divided into three overlapping classes, environmental, social and the effect of the female phenotype. The environmental factors discussed include predation risk and the costs of sampling; the social factors discussed include the effect of male-male interactions as well as female competition. We review the literature which presents data on how females sample males and discuss the number of cues females use. We conclude that sexual-selection studies have paid far less attention to variation among females than to variation among males, and that there is still much to learn about how females choose males and why different females make different choices. We suggest a number of possible lines for future research.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation
  • Male
  • Phenotype
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sex Ratio
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology*