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Biol Lett. 2011 Oct 23;7(5):740-2. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0276. Epub 2011 Apr 13.

Sexual ornamentation reflects antibacterial activity of ejaculates in mallards.

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  • 1School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501, USA.


Bacteria present in ejaculates can impair sperm function and reduce male reproductive success. Thus, selection should favour the evolution of antimicrobial defences to limit the detrimental effects of sperm-associated bacteria. Additionally, current hypotheses suggest that ornamental traits may signal information about the infection status of an individual or the ability of an individual to resist bacterial-induced sperm damage. However, despite the evolutionary implications of ejaculate antimicrobials, and the putative importance of pathogens for the evolution of male ornamentation, tests of these hypotheses are lacking. We examined the antibacterial activity of semen from mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) and tested whether the bactericidal capacity of semen was associated with bill coloration, a sexually selected trait. We show that mallard semen exhibits significant antibacterial activity, as measured by the in vitro capacity to kill Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Furthermore, we demonstrate that males with more colourful bills have semen with superior bacterial-killing ability. These results suggest that females could use male phenotypic traits to avoid sexually transmitted pathogens and acquire partners whose sperm suffer less bacteria-induced damage.

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