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Do audience effects lead to relaxed male sexual harassment?

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Several recent studies reported on so-called audience effects in male Atlantic mollies (Poecilia mexicana), in which the visual presence of a potential rival affects male sexual activity. We asked whether and how audience effects interact with male sexual harassment. Poecilia mexicana almost constantly attempt to mate, while females are mostly non-responsive to male approaches. Females flee from this sexual harassment and, thus, are more vigilant in the presence of males, so females may have hampered feeding opportunities. Do audience effects lead to altered male sexual harassment? Focal females were given an opportunity to feed in the presence of a male or a female partner and the difference in feeding times was interpreted as an effect caused by male harassment. Tests were conducted without an audience (1), or an audience male was visually presented either directly inside the test tank (2), or further away (in an adjoining compartment (3)). We found that levels of pre-mating behaviour did not vary significantly among treatments, but males exhibited more copulation attempts (thrusting) in treatment (3), suggesting that males respond to increased risk of sperm competition with higher sperm expenditure. Females fed less (and started feeding later) when a harassing partner male was around, and this effect was not dependent on the audience treatment, but, overall, females spent more time feeding (and started feeding earlier) when an audience was presented. Hence, feeding time reductions appear to be independent of audience effects, but perceived 'safety in numbers' may lead to increased foraging in larger groups.

Affiliations: 1: University of Potsdam, Institute of Biochemistry and Biology, Unit of Animal Ecology, Maulbeerallee 1, D-14469 Potsdam, Germany; 2: University of Potsdam, Institute of Biochemistry and Biology, Unit of Evolutionary Biology & Systematic Zoology, Karl-Liebknecht Strasse 24–25, D-14476 Potsdam/Golm; 3: Department of Ecology & Evolution, J.W. Goethe University Frankfurt, Siesmayerstrasse 70–72, D-60054 Frankfurt am Main, Germany


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