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Sexual signals and mating patterns in Syngnathidae

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Male pregnancy in the family Syngnathidae (pipefishes, seahorses and seadragons) predisposes males to limit female reproductive success; sexual selection may then operate more strongly on females and female sexual signals may evolve (sex-role reversal). A bewildering array of female signals has evolved in Syngnathids, e.g. skin folds, large body size, colouration, markings on the body and elaborate courtship. These female sexual signals do not seem quantitatively or qualitatively different from those that evolve in males in species with conventional sex roles where males provide females or offspring with direct benefits. In several syngnathid species, males also evolve ornaments, females are choosy in addition to being competitive and males compete as well as choosing partners. Thus, sex roles form a continuum, spanning from conventional to reversed within this group of fishes. Cases are presented here suggesting that stronger sexual selection on females may be most extreme in species showing classical polyandry (one male mates with several females, such as many species where males brood their eggs on the trunk), intermediate in polygynandrous species (males and females both mate with more than one partner, as in many species where males brood their eggs on the tail) and least extreme, even exhibiting conventional sex roles, in monogamous species (one male mates solely with one female, as in many seahorses and tropical pipefishes). At the same time caution is needed before unanimously establishing this pattern: first, the connection between mating patterns, strength of sexual selection, sex roles and ornament expression is far from simple and straightforward, and second, knowledge of the actual morphology, ecology and behaviour of most syngnathid species is scanty. Basically only a few Nerophis, Syngnathus and Hippocampus species have been studied in any detail. It is known, however, that this group of fishes exhibits a remarkable variation in sex roles and ornamentation, making them an ideal group for the study of mating patterns, sexual selection and sexually selected signals.
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Keywords: mate choice; ornaments; pipefishes; seahorses; sex roles; sexual selection

Document Type: Editorial

Affiliations: Department of Ecology and Genetics/Animal Ecology, Norbyv. 18d, Uppsala University, SE-75236 Uppsala, Sweden

Publication date: 2011-06-01

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