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Female animals may acquire mate preferences through observation

A new study published in the journal PLOS Biology suggests that female animals may establish their mate preferences by noting the distinct traits selected by experienced females within their community. 

The researchers, led by Emily DuVal at Florida State University, used a mathematical model to understand why females select certain mates.

Inferred attractiveness 

“Sexual selection by mate choice is a powerful force that can lead to evolutionary change, and models of why females choose particular mates are central to understanding its effects,” wrote the study authors.

“Predominant mate choice theories assume preferences are determined solely by genetic inheritance, an assumption still lacking widespread support.”

“Here, we propose a new model that explains this mate choice complexity with one general hypothesized mechanism, ‘Inferred Attractiveness.'” 

Observational learning

According to the model, younger females may observe the choices made by mature counterparts, eventually developing a preference for traits that are rare among males but are indicative of success. 

The selected traits are not necessarily the focal points for the older females, but the younger observers may misconstrue them as desirable. 

Through generations, as these distinctive traits become prevalent among males, they gradually lose their allure. This continuous shift in mate preferences helps sustain a diversity in male traits over time.

Sexual selection 

The process of sexual selection, whereby traits gain popularity and become common due to their appeal, results in the emergence of unusual and often exaggerated characteristics in males, like extensive antlers, vibrant feathers, and extravagant courtship displays. 

The precise reasons behind females favoring certain traits, however, remain elusive and complex. Preferences vary not only across different generations but also among individuals within the same generation.

Traditional theories 

Traditional theories offer a few explanations. Some suggest that females might be inclined to seek out traits that signify superior genetic quality, while others propose that a positive feedback loop exists between male traits and female preferences. 

Another perspective suggests that females’ sensory biases draw them towards specific traits. Despite these theories, none comprehensively explain the diverse range of traits and preferences observable in nature.

Female preferences 

The FSU study introduces an innovative viewpoint, proposing that females learn to discern attractive traits through observation. This observational learning plays a crucial role in the decision-making process. 

Over time, the inferred attractiveness of specific traits influences the mate selection, resulting in the evolution and persistence of diverse male traits and female preferences within populations.

Study implications 

This research not only sheds light on the intricate dynamics of mate selection but also on the rapid evolutionary changes and the enduring variation in traits and preferences seen in the animal kingdom. 

The findings suggest that the process of mate selection is not merely about imitation but involves a complex interplay of observation, learning, and interpretation.

“While scientists have known for a long time that females can copy each other’s choice of mates, no one has previously considered that these copying females aren’t mind-readers,” wrote the study authors.

“When we considered that females can make mistakes in identifying what traits others find attractive, we found this produces patterns that have long puzzled biologists, for example maintaining variety in male traits and female preferences over time.”

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