Battle of the sexes leads to a biological arms race

Boxes of chocolate and Valentine cards wont get you far in the animal world, where courting is considerably tougher. New research confirms earlier beliefs: an evolutionary battle of the sexes can lead to a biological arms race between males and females.

We all know that males and females of most animal species look and behave very differently. Males are, for example, often provided with various weapons, bright colours or other ornaments. Females are, however, not easily impressed, and such differences between males and females have traditionally been explained by females search for good fathers for their offspring. A new and quite different explanation is instead based on different and fundamental conflicts of interest between the sexes.

Males and females play different roles in reproduction. What is best for one sex is therefore rarely best for the other. Such differences lead to a range of different sexual conflicts. For example, males of most animal species benefit from mating often with as many partners as possible, while females who are already mated instead stand to loose from mating with too many males. Males should thus seek to convince females to mate, while females should evolve resistance to males mating attempts. The traits which males may use in such conflicts may be of varying kinds, ranging from elaborate ornaments to mate grasping adaptations which makes it difficult for females to escape persistent males.

The result of such sexual conflict is in theory an arms race between the sexes, where male persistence will be matched by female resistance. Such arms races are, however, very difficult to study. The fact that male and female adaptations counterbalance, means that the underlying conflicts will often remain hidden. Both sexes may be running frantically, in an evolutionary sense, but their interactions may remain at a standstill.

New research conducted by Gran Arnqvist at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and Locke

Contact: Gran Arnqvist
Uppsala University

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