Indirect fitness consequences of mate choice in sticklebacks: offspring of brighter males grow slowly but resist parasitic infections

Iain Barber, Stephen A. Arnott, Victoria A. Braithwaite, Jennifer Andrew, Felicity A. Huntingford

Abstract

‘Good genes’ models of sexual selection suggest that elaborate male sexual ornaments have evolved as reliable signals of male quality because only males of high genetic viability are able to develop and maintain them. Females benefit from choosing such individuals if quality is heritable. A key prediction is that the offspring of males with elaborate mating displays will perform better than those of less elaborate males, but it has proved difficult to demonstrate such an effect independently of the effects of differences in parental investment. We tested for ‘good genes’ linked to male ornamentation in the three–spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus using in vitro fertilization to generate maternal half–siblings, which were raised without parental care. Maternal half–siblings sired by brightly coloured males grew less quickly than half–siblings sired by dull males but were more resistant to a controlled disease challenge. Among the offspring that became infected, those with brighter fathers had higher white blood cell counts. This suggests that highly ornamented males confer disease resistance on their offspring. The association with reduced growth suggests a mechanism for the maintenance of heritable variation in both disease resistance and male sexual coloration.