In most animal species, males are predicted to compete for reproductive opportunities, while females are expected to choose between potential mates. However, when males' rate of reproduction is constrained, or females vary widely in ‘quality’, male mate choice is also predicted to occur. Such conditions exist in the promiscuous mating system of feral Soay sheep on St Kilda, Scotland, where a highly synchronized mating season, intense sperm competition and limitations on sperm production constrain males' potential reproductive rate, and females vary substantially in their ability to produce successful offspring. We show that, consistent with predictions, competitive rams focus their mating activity and siring success towards heavier females with higher inclusive fitness. To our knowledge, this is the first time that male mate choice has been identified and shown to lead to assortative patterns of parentage in a natural mammalian system, and occurs despite fierce male–male competition for mates. An additional consequence of assortative mating in this population is that lighter females experience a series of unstable consorts with less adept rams, and hence are mated by a greater number of males during their oestrus. We have thus also identified a novel male–driven mechanism that generates variation in female promiscuity, which suggests that the high levels of female promiscuity in this system are not part of an daptive female tactic to intensify post–copulatory competition between males.
↵† Present address: Sunadal Data Solutions, 8 West Annandale Street, Edinburgh EH7 4JU, UK.
↵‡ Present address: Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E9, Canada.
↵§ Present address: Department of Biological Sciences, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA 1 4YQ, UK.