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Population structure influences sexual conflict in wild populations of water striders

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In sexual conflict, aggressive males frequently diminish the long-term reproductive success of females in efforts to gain a short-term advantage over rival males. This short-term advantage can selectively favour high-exploitation males. However, just as the over-exploitation of resources can lead to local extinction, the over-exploitation of females in the form of harassment by aggressive males can yield similar consequences resulting in reduced female fecundity, increased female mortality and overall decline in mating activity. This outcome may often be prevented by selection acting at multiple levels of biological organization. Directional selection favouring aggressive exploitation within groups can be balanced by directional selection amongst groups opposing exploitation. Such between-group selection has recently been demonstrated in laboratory studies of water striders, where the conditional dispersal of individuals increased variation amongst groups and influenced the balance of selection toward reduced male aggression. This multilevel selection (MLS) framework also provides predictive value when investigating natural populations differing in their relative strength of selection within versus among groups. For water striders, the consequences of local exploitation cause fitness differences between groups, favouring less aggressive males. Inconsistently flowing ephemeral streams consist of isolated pools that prevent aggressive male water striders from escaping the consequences of local exploitation. We, therefore, predicted that inconsistently flowing ephemeral streams would favour the evolution of less aggressive males than would perennial streams, which allow aggressive males to move more freely and to escape the group-level costs of their aggression. Comparing two neighbouring streams during the mating season, we found that males dispersed naturally between pools at much higher rates in the perennial stream than in the ephemeral stream. As predicted, we found that males from the perennial stream were significantly more aggressive than those from the ephemeral stream. We also found that dispersers were significantly more aggressive than non-dispersers within each stream. These field results illustrate the relevance of the MLS framework in our understanding of the evolution of sexual conflict.

Affiliations: 1: Center for Insect Science, P.O. Box 210088, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721-0088, USA;, Email:; 2: Department of Biological Sciences, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY, USA; 3: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA


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