Experimental evidence for asymmetric mate preference and aggression: behavioral interactions in a woodrat (Neotoma) hybrid zone
Springer Science and Business Media LLC -- BMC Evolutionary Biology
DOI 10.1186/1471-2148-13-220
  1. Hybridization
  2. Reproductive isolation
  3. Reproductive character displacement
  4. Reinforcement


Female mate preferences may be under strong selection in zones of contact between closely related species because of greater variation in available mates and the potential costs of hybridization. We studied female mate preferences experimentally in a zone of secondary contact between Desert and Bryant’s Woodrat (Neotoma lepida and N. bryanti) in the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada of California. We tested female preference for conspecific versus heterospecific males in paired choice trials in which females could interact freely with males, but males could not interact directly with each other. We compared preferences of females from both allopatric and sympatric sites.


We did not find evidence of the process of reinforcement as assortative preferences were not stronger in sympatry than in allopatry. Mate preferences, however, were asymmetric, with N. lepida females mating preferentially with conspecifics and N. bryanti females showing no preference by species. Sympatric females were less likely to mate than allopatric females, due in part to an increase in aggressive interactions. However, even in the absence of aggression, courtship led to mating less often in sympatric females, suggesting they were choosier or had lower sexual motivation than allopatric females.


Patterns of mate choice in this woodrat system appear to be strongly impacted by body size and aggressive behavior. In particular, females of the smaller-bodied species rarely interact with the relatively large heterospecific males. In contrast females of the larger-bodied species accept the relatively small heterospecific males. For sympatric animals, rates of aggression were markedly higher than for allopatric animals and reduced affiliative and reproductive behavior in our trials. Sympatric animals are larger and more aggressive, traits that are likely under strong ecological selection across the sharp resource gradient that characterizes the contact zone. However, our results suggest that these traits that are likely favored in competitive interactions between the species also impact reproductive interactions. Combined with our previous findings of post-zygotic isolation in this system, this study suggests that multiple isolating mechanisms contribute to the rate of genetic exchange between these species when they come into contact, and that these mechanisms are the result of selection on traits that are important in a range of ecological and reproductive interactions.