Factors leading to the evolution and maintenance of a male ornament in territorial species

Research paper by Grace K. Charles, Terry J. Ord

Indexed on: 11 Oct '11Published on: 11 Oct '11Published in: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology


Male ornamentation is assumed to have evolved primarily from selection by female mate choice. Yet this is only one possible reason for ornament evolution. Ornaments might also be useful in aggressive competition by improving opponent assessment between males, or they might function to enhance signal detection by making males more conspicuous in the environment. We tested both these ideas in territorial Anolis lizards in which female choice is either absent or secondary to males competing for territories that overlap female home ranges. Male tail crests only evolved in species in which territory neighbors were distant, consistent with the signal detection hypothesis. Once the tail crest had evolved, however, it seems to have become a signal in itself, with variation in the frequency and size of tail crests within species correlating with variables predicted by the aggressive competition hypothesis. Our study presents an apparent example of a male ornament in which the selection pressure leading to variation among species in ornament expression is different from the selection pressure acting on variation within species. The Anolis tail crest is therefore likely to be an exaptation. We caution that conclusions made on the evolution of male ornaments are dependent on the phylogenetic perspective adopted by a study. Studies restricted to single species are useful for identifying selection pressures in contemporary settings (i.e., the current utility of traits), but may lead to erroneous conclusions on the factors that initially lead to the origin of traits.