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Male mating competitiveness and age-dependent relationship between testosterone and social rank in bighorn sheep

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In males, the acquisition and development of behavioral and morphological secondary sexual traits typically depends on testosterone and correlates with mating success. Testosterone level could affect competition for mates and thus be a target of sexual selection. We sought to relate testosterone levels to male mating competitiveness, by teasing apart the relationships between testosterone, behavior, and growth before the mating period. We monitored 24 adult bighorn rams (Ovis canadensis) at Ram Mountain, Alberta, from 2008 to 2011. Using linear mixed models, we tested the relationships between testosterone metabolites in feces, social rank, and both growth and size of two sexually selected traits: horns and body mass. The correlation between testosterone and social rank varied with age. Testosterone and rank were weakly and negatively correlated for young rams, positively correlated for prime-aged rams, and negatively correlated for older rams. Although testosterone had an increasingly positive effect on total horn length until 8 years of age, we could not detect any effects on annual growth rate of horns or body mass. Testosterone may be related to male’s ability to compete for mates through its relationship with behaviors determining social rank, rather than by influencing the development of morphological traits. Differences in testosterone levels among competitors may be a proximate cause of variance in fitness.
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... In polygynous systems, where a few highly competitive males can monopolize reproduction over one or a few breeding seasons (Andersson, 1994), differences in resource acquisition are likely very important. In polygynous species, male reproductive success is generally associated with dominance, which is often determined by body mass and size of secondary sexual traits (Bergeron et al., 2010;Lloyd et al., 2020;Martin et al., 2013;. When reproductive success is monopolized by a few dominant males, most males do not reproduce (Coltman et al., 2002). ...
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