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Biology LibreTexts

19.3D: Sexual Selection

  • Page ID
  • Sexual selection, the selection pressure on males and females to obtain matings, can result in traits designed to maximize sexual success.


    Discuss the effects of sexual dimorphism on the reproductive potential of an organism


    Key Points

    • Sexual selection often results in the development of secondary sexual characteristics, which help to maximize a species ‘ reproductive success, but do not provide any survival benefits.
    • The handicap principle states that only the best males survive the risks from traits that may actually be detrimental to a species; therefore, they are more fit as mating partners.
    • In the good genes hypothesis, females will choose males that show off impressive traits to ensure they pass on genetic superiority to their offspring.
    • Sexual dimorphisms, obvious morphological differences between the sexes of a species, arise when there is more variance in the reproductive success of either males or females.

    Key Terms

    • sexual dimorphism: a physical difference between male and female individuals of the same species
    • sexual selection: a type of natural selection, where members of the sexes acquire distinct forms because members choose mates with particular features or because competition for mates with certain traits succeed
    • handicap principle: a theory that suggests that animals of greater biological fitness signal this status through a behavior or morphology that effectively lowers their chances of survival

    Sexual Selection

    The selection pressures on males and females to obtain matings is known as sexual selection. Sexual selection takes two major forms: intersexual selection (also known as ‘mate choice’ or ‘female choice’) in which males compete with each other to be chosen by females; and intrasexual selection (also known as ‘male–male competition’) in which members of the less limited sex (typically males) compete aggressively among themselves for access to the limiting sex. The limiting sex is the sex which has the higher parental investment, which therefore faces the most pressure to make a good mate decision.


    Sexual selection in elk: This male elk has large antlers to compete with rival males for available females (intrasexual competition).Tn addition, the many points on his antlers represent health and longevity, and therefore he may be more desirable to females (intersexual selection).

    Sexual Dimorphism

    Males and females of certain species are often quite different from one another in ways beyond the reproductive organs. Males are often larger, for example, and display many elaborate colors and adornments, such as the peacock’s tail, while females tend to be smaller and duller in decoration. These differences are called sexual dimorphisms and arise from the variation in male reproductive success.

    Females almost always mate, while mating is not guaranteed for males. The bigger, stronger, or more decorated males usually obtain the vast majority of the total matings, while other males receive none. This can occur because the males are better at fighting off other males, or because females will choose to mate with the bigger or more decorated males. In either case, this variation in reproductive success generates a strong selection pressure among males to obtain those matings, resulting in the evolution of bigger body size and elaborate ornaments in order to increase their chances of mating. Females, on the other hand, tend to get a handful of selected matings; therefore, they are more likely to select more desirable males.


    Sexual dimorphism: Morphological differences between males and females of the same species is known as sexual dimorphism.These differences can be observed in (a) peacocks and peahens, (b) Argiope appensa spiders (the female spider is the large one), and (c) wood ducks.

    Sexual dimorphism varies widely among species; some species are even sex-role reversed. In such cases, females tend to have a greater variation in their reproductive success than males and are, correspondingly, selected for the bigger body size and elaborate traits usually characteristic of males.

    The Handicap Principle

    Sexual selection can be so strong that it selects for traits that are actually detrimental to the individual’s survival, even though they maximize its reproductive success. For example, while the male peacock’s tail is beautiful and the male with the largest, most colorful tail will more probably win the female, it is not a practical appendage. In addition to being more visible to predators, it makes the males slower in their attempted escapes. There is some evidence that this risk, in fact, is why females like the big tails in the first place. Because large tails carry risk, only the best males survive that risk and therefore the bigger the tail, the more fit the male. This idea is known as the handicap principle.


    A male bird of paradise: This male bird of paradise carries an extremely long tail as the result of sexual selection.The tail is flamboyant and detrimental to the bird’s own survival, but it increases his reproductive success.This may be an example of the handicap principle.

    The Good Genes Hypothesis

    The good genes hypothesis states that males develop these impressive ornaments to show off their efficient metabolism or their ability to fight disease. Females then choose males with the most impressive traits because it signals their genetic superiority, which they will then pass on to their offspring. Though it might be argued that females should not be so selective because it will likely reduce their number of offspring, if better males father more fit offspring, it may be beneficial. Fewer, healthier offspring may increase the chances of survival more than many, weaker offspring.

    BBC Planet Earth – Birds of Paradise mating dance: Extraordinary Courtship displays from these weird and wonderful creatures. From episode 1 “Pole to Pole”. This is an example of the extreme behaviors that arise from intense sexual selection pressure.