Maintenance of sperm variation in a highly promiscuous wild bird

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Postcopulatory sexual selection is an important force in the evolution of reproductive traits, including sperm morphology. In birds, sperm morphology is known to be highly heritable and largely condition-independent. Theory predicts, and recent comparative work corroborates, that strong selection in such traits reduces intraspecific phenotypic variation. Here we show that some variation can be maintained despite extreme promiscuity, as a result of opposing, copulation-role-specific selection forces. After controlling for known correlates of siring success in the superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), we found that (a) lifetime extra-pair paternity success was associated with sperm with a shorter flagellum and relatively large head, and (b) males whose sperm had a longer flagellum and a relatively smaller head achieved higher within-pair paternity. In this species extrapair copulations occur in the same morning, but preceding, pair copulations during a female's fertile period, suggesting that shorter and relatively larger-headed sperm are most successful in securing storage (defense), whereas the opposite phenotype might be better at outcompeting stored sperm (offense). Furthermore, since cuckolding ability is a major contributor to differential male reproductive output, stronger selection on defense sperm competition traits might explain the short sperm of malurids relative to other promiscuous passerines. © 2011 Calhim et al.




Calhim, S., Double, M. C., Margraf, N., Birkhead, T. R., & Cockburn, A. (2011). Maintenance of sperm variation in a highly promiscuous wild bird. PLoS ONE, 6(12).

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