In many poeciliid fishes, large males which court females coexist with small males which sneak-copulate. It is unclear whether these two tactics represent two evolutionarily stable strategies or if sneaking is a conditional strategy adopted by small, unattractive males. We studied the success of sneaky copulation by looking for sperm in the gonoduct of females after they were kept for 48 h with a male. A logistic regression analysis showed that the probability of a female being inseminated increased with female length and decreased with male length. The length of the male relative to that of the female was the best predictor of success. This result was confirmed using virgin females, thereby excluding any possible confounding effect due to the release of sperm from previous copulations. Sperm counts suggested that large males do not compensate for their reduced copulatory success by releasing larger sperm numbers. Behavioural data indicate that the advantages to small males are twofold: they have a greater chance to approach females from behind without being detected, and manoeuvre better when inserting the gonopodium into the female's gonoduct. The selective advantage of small size might explain male dwarfism in poeciliids. Our results also suggest that small males adopting the sneaky tactic may be as successful as large males adopting courtship, and that alternative mating strategies may be maintained by negative density-dependent selection.
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