Mating patterns influence vulnerability to the extinction vortex

Joanne L. Godwin, Alyson J. Lumley, Łukasz Michalczyk, Oliver Y. Martin, Matthew J. G. Gage

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Earth's biodiversity is undergoing mass extinction due to anthropogenic compounding of environmental, demographic and genetic stresses. These different stresses can trap populations within a reinforcing feedback loop known as the extinction vortex, in which synergistic pressures build upon one another through time, driving down population viability. Sexual selection, the widespread evolutionary force arising from competition, choice and reproductive variance within animal mating patterns could have vital consequences for population viability and the extinction vortex: (a) if sexual selection reinforces natural selection to fix ‘good genes’ and purge ‘bad genes’, then mating patterns encouraging competition and choice may help protect populations from extinction; (b) by contrast, if mating patterns create load through evolutionary or ecological conflict, then population viability could be further reduced by sexual selection. We test between these opposing theories using replicate populations of the model insect Tribolium castaneum exposed to over 10 years of experimental evolution under monogamous versus polyandrous mating patterns. After a 95‐generation history of divergence in sexual selection, we compared fitness and extinction of monogamous versus polyandrous populations through an experimental extinction vortex comprising 15 generations of cycling environmental and genetic stresses. Results showed that lineages from monogamous evolutionary backgrounds, with limited opportunities for sexual selection, showed rapid declines in fitness and complete extinction through the vortex. By contrast, fitness of populations from the history of polyandry, with stronger opportunities for sexual selection, declined slowly, with 60% of populations surviving by the study end. The three vortex stresses of (a) nutritional deprivation, (b) thermal stress and (c) genetic bottlenecking had similar impacts on fitness declines and extinction risk, with an overall sigmoid decline in survival through time. We therefore reveal sexual selection as an important force behind lineages facing extinction threats, identifying the relevance of natural mating patterns for conservation management.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to) 4226-4239
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number8
Early online date19 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020


  • Tribolium
  • environmental stress
  • genic capture
  • inbreeding
  • monogamy
  • polyandry
  • sexual conflict

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