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SZYKMAN GUNTHER Micaela

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31 May 2022
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Sexual coercion in a natural mandrill population

Rare behaviours can have strong effects: evidence for sexual coercion in mandrills

Recommended by based on reviews by Micaela Szykman Gunther and 1 anonymous reviewer

Sexual coercion can be defined as the use by a male of force, or threat of force, which increases the chances that a female will mate with him at a time when she is likely to be fertile, and/or decrease the chances that she will mate with other males, at some cost to the female (Smuts & Smuts 1993). It has been evidenced in a wide range of species and may play an important role in the evolution of sexual conflict and social systems. However, identifying sexual coercion in natural systems can be particularly challenging. Notably, while male behaviour may have immediate consequences on mating success (“harassment”), the mating benefits may be delayed in time (“intimidation”), and in such cases, evidencing coercion requires detailed temporal data at the individual level. Moreover, in some species male aggressive behaviours may be subtle or rare and hence hardly observed, yet still have important effects on female mating probability and fitness. Therefore, investigating the occurrence and consequences of sexual coercion in such species is particularly relevant but studying it in a statistically robust way is likely to require a considerable amount of time spent observing individuals.

In this paper, Smit et al. (2022) test three clear predictions of the sexual coercion hypothesis in a natural population of Mandrills, where severe male aggression towards females is rare: (1) male aggression is more likely on sexually receptive females than on females in other reproductive states, (2) receptive females are more likely to be injured and (3) male aggression directed towards females is positively related to subsequent probability of copulation between those dyads. They also tested an alternative hypothesis, the “aggressive male phenotype” under which the correlation between male aggression towards females and subsequent mating could be statistically explained by male overall aggressivity. In agreement with the three predictions of the sexual coercion hypothesis, (1) male aggression was on average 5 times more likely, and (2) injuries twice as likely, to be observed on sexually receptive females than on females in other reproductive states and (3) copulation between males and sexually receptive females was twice more likely to be observed when aggression by this male was observed on the female before sexual receptivity. There was no support for the aggressive male hypothesis.

The reviewers and I were highly positive about this study, notably regarding the way it is written and how the predictions are carefully and clearly stated, tested, interpreted, and discussed.

This study is a good illustration of a case where some behaviours may not be common or obvious yet have strong effects and likely important consequences and thus be clearly worth studying. More generally, it shows once more the importance of detailed long-term studies at the individual level for our understanding of the ecology and evolution of wild populations.

It is also a good illustration of the challenges faced, when comparing the likelihood of contrasting hypotheses means we need to alter sample sizes and/or the likelihood to observe at all some behaviours. For example, observing copulation within minutes after aggression (and therefore, showing statistical support for “harassment”) is inevitably less likely than observing copulations on the longer-term (and therefore showing statistical support for “intimidation”, when of course effort is put into recording such behavioural data on the long-term). Such challenges might partly explain some apparently intriguing results. For example, why are swollen females more aggressed by males if only aggression before the swollen period seems associated with more chances of mating? Here, the authors systematically provide effect sizes (and confidence intervals) and often describe the effects in an intuitive biological way (e.g., “Swollen females were, on average, about five times more likely to become injured”). This clearly helps the reader to not merely compare statistical significances but also the biological strengths of the estimated effects and the uncertainty around them. They also clearly acknowledge limits due to sample size when testing the harassment hypothesis, yet they provide precious information on the probability of observing mating (a rare behaviour) directly after aggression (already a rare behaviour!), that is, 3 times out of 38 aggressions observed between a male and a swollen female. Once again, this highlights how important it is to be able to pursue the enormous effort put so far into closely and continuously monitoring this wild population.

Finally, this study raises exciting new questions, notably regarding to what extent females exhibit “counter-strategies” in response to sexual coercion, notably whether there is still scope for female mate choice under such conditions, and what are the fitness consequences of these dynamic conflicting sexual interactions. No doubt these questions will sooner than later be addressed by the authors, and I am looking forward to reading their upcoming work.

References

Smit N, Baniel A, Roura-Torres B, Amblard-Rambert P, Charpentier MJE, Huchard E (2022) Sexual coercion in a natural mandrill population. bioRxiv, 2022.02.07.479393, ver. 5 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1101/2022.02.07.479393

Smuts BB, Smuts R w. (1993) Male Aggression and Sexual Coercion of Females in Nonhuman Primates and Other Mammals: Evidence and Theoretical Implications. In: Advances in the Study of Behavior (eds Slater PJB, Rosenblatt JS, Snowdon CT, Milinski M), pp. 1–63. Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-3454(08)60404-0

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SZYKMAN GUNTHER Micaela

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