Age-dependent sexual selection in bighorn rams

D. W. Coltman, M. Festa-Bianchet, J. T. Jorgenson, C. Strobeck

Abstract

Although mating systems and sexual selection have been intensively studied in ungulate model systems, very few studies have combined genetic paternity analysis with individual phenotypic data over several breeding seasons. We used microsatellite paternity analysis to determine the parentage of 83 bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) born between 1995 and 2000 at Ram Mountain, Alberta, Canada. We could assign the paternity of 64 lambs at a high level of statistical confidence (95%). Within each season, the most successful ram sired an average of 35.5% of the lambs with assigned paternity, and a single ram sired 26.1% of all lambs over the six mating seasons. Although a few large-horned, mature (age 8+ years) rams had very high reproductive success, younger rams sired ca. 50% of the lambs. Mixed–effects models indicated that mating success increases as a nonlinear function of age, with horn length increasingly positive in correlation with mating success in older rams. These results indicate that young or small rams possibly achieve mating success through alternative mating tactics that are less dependent on body and weapon size, such as coursing and blocking. Sexual selection is therefore likely to have age–dependent effects on traits such as agility, body and horn size.