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Proc Biol Sci. 2003 Oct 7;270(1528):1991-5.

Mating in a viscous universe: the race is to the agile, not to the swift.

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School of Biology, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK.


Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection has at its focal point the mating success of organisms. Among male animals, large body size is widely seen as the principal determinant of mating success. However, where mating takes place in a three-dimensional arena such as water, the arboreal habitat or air, small size with its concomitant aerobatic advantages might be advantageous. Despite considerable interest, the relationship between aerobatic ability and mating success has not yet been demonstrated in a single animal species. Here, we test the hypothesis that the known mating success of small male midges is due to their greater aerobatic ability. To do this, male midges collected from leks in the wild were flown and their flight paths in free flight were recorded on high-speed cameras in the laboratory. Four flight parameters that would seem relevant to male mate acquisition in flight, i.e. acceleration, maximum speed, tortuosity and turn-rate, were analysed with respect to body size. We show that, while in terms of maximum speed there was no detectable difference between small and large males, small males outperformed larger ones with respect to acceleration, tortuosity and turn-rate. We conclude that the hypothesis that small males gain their mating advantage through aerobatic superiority is consistent with the observations reported here.

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