Sexual selection and the risk of extinction in birds

Edward H. Morrow, Evolutionsbiologiskt centrum
Trevor E. Pitcher, University of Toronto


The relationship between sexual selection and extinction risk has rarely been investigated. This is unfortunate because extinction plays a key role in determining the patterns of species richness seen in extant clades, which form the basis of comparative studies into the role that sexual selection may play in promoting speciation. We investigate the extent to which the perceived risk of extinction relates to four different estimates of sexual selection in 1030 species of birds. We find no evidence that the number of threatened species is distributed unevenly according to a social mating system, and neither of our two measures of pre-mating sexual selection (sexual dimorphism and dichromatism) was related to extinction risk, after controlling for phylogenetic inertia. However, threatened species apparently experience more intense post-mating sexual selection, measured as testis size, than non-threatened species. These results persisted after including body size as a covariate in the analysis, and became even stronger after controlling for clutch size (two known correlates of extinction risk). Sexual selection may therefore be a double-edged process - promoting speciation on one hand but promoting extinction on the other. Furthermore, we suggest that it is post-mating sexual selection, in particular, that is responsible for the negative effect of sexual selection on clade size. Why this might be is unclear, but the mean population fitness of species with high intensities of post-mating sexual selection may be especially low if costs associated with multiple mating are high or if the selection load imposed by post-mating selection is higher relative to that of pre-mating sexual selection.