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Sexual selection facts for kids

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Descent of Man fig48
Illustration from The Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex by Charles Darwin showing the Tufted Coquette Lophornis ornatus, female on left, ornamented male on right.

Sexual selection is a special kind of natural selection. It is a theory of Charles Darwin that certain traits can be explained by competition within a species.

Darwin defined sexual selection as the effects of the "struggle between the individuals of one sex, generally the males, for the possession of the other sex". It is usually males who fight each other. Traits selected by male combat are called secondary sexual characteristics (including horns, antlers, etc.) and sometimes referred to as 'weapons'. Traits selected by mate choice are called 'ornaments'.

Females often prefer to mate with males with external ornaments—exaggerated features of morphology. Genes that enable males to develop impressive ornaments or fighting ability may simply show off greater disease resistance or a more efficient metabolism—features that also benefit females. This idea is known as the 'good genes' hypothesis. Sexual selection is still being researched and discussed today.

Modern views

Ernst Mayr said:

"Since Darwin’s days it has become clear that this kind of selection includes a far wider realm of phenomena, and instead of sexual selection it is better referred to as selection for reproductive success... genuine selection, not elimination, is involved, unlike survival selection. Considering how many new kinds of selection for reproductive success are discovered year after year, I am beginning to wonder whether it is not even more important than survival selection, at least in certain higher organisms".

Competition between members of the same species

Today, biologists would say that certain evolutionary traits can be explained by competition between members of the same species. Competition can be before or after mating.

Competition between males and females

  • Before mating, intrasexual selection – usually between males – may take the form of male-to-male combat. Also, intersexual selection, or mate choice, occurs when females choose between male mates. Traits selected by male combat are called secondary sexual characteristics (including horns, antlers etc.), which Darwin described as "weapons", while traits selected by mate (usually female) choice are called "ornaments".
  • After mating, male–male competition may take the form of sperm competition, the competition between the sperm of two different males to fertilize an ovum. in 1970. More recently, interest has arisen in cryptic female choice, where a female will get rid of a male's sperm without his knowledge. This occurs in a wide range of species.

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