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How 'secondary' sex characters can drive the origin of species

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The ostentatious, sometimes bizarre qualities that improve a creature's chances of finding a mate may also drive the reproductive separation of populations and the evolution of new species, say two Indiana University Bloomington biologists.

In the September 2008 issue of Evolution (now online), Armin Moczek and Harald Parzer examine males from four geographically separated populations of the horned beetle species Onthophagus taurus. The beetles have diverged significantly in the size of the male copulatory organ, and natural selection operating on the other end of the animal -- horns atop the beetles' heads -- seems to be driving it.

"Biologists have known that in these beetles there is an investment trade-off between secondary sexual characters and primary sexual characters," Moczek said. "As horns get bigger, copulatory organs get smaller, or vice versa. What was not known was how frequently and how fast this can occur in nature, and whether this can drive the evolution of new species."

Structures directly involved in mating are known as primary sexual characters, whereas combat structures like horns -- or seductive attributes like a cardinal's vibrant plumage or a bullfrog's deeply resonant baritone -- are known as secondary sexual characters.

Evolutionary biologists believe changes in copulatory organ size and shape can spur speciation by making individuals from different populations sexually incompatible.

Native to Italy, O. taurus exists in other parts of the world only because of recent human activity. This means, Moczek and Parzer say, that the marked divergences they observed in O. taurus's horn and copulatory organ size must have occurred over an extremely short period of time -- 50 years or less.

Despite what many of us are led to believe, variation in male copulatory organ size within species tends to be very low, humans and beetles included. Yet the four O. t

Contact: David Bricker
Indiana University

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