Males and females of certain species are often quite different from one another in ways beyond the reproductive organs. Males are often larger, for example, and display many elaborate colors and adornments, like the peacock’s tail, while females tend to be smaller and duller in decoration. Such differences are known as sexual dimorphisms (see the figure below), which arise from the fact that in many populations, particularly animal populations, there is more variance in the reproductive success of the males than there is of the females. That is, some males—often the bigger, stronger, or more decorated males—get the vast majority of the total matings, while others receive none.
This can occur because the males are better at fighting off other males, or because females will choose to mate with the bigger or more decorated males. In either case, this variation in reproductive success generates a strong selection pressure among males to get those matings, resulting in the evolution of bigger body size and elaborate ornaments to get the females’ attention. Females, on the other hand, tend to get a handful of selected matings; therefore, they are more likely to select more desirable males.
Sexual dimorphism varies widely among species, of course, and some species are even sex-role reversed. In such cases, females tend to have a greater variance in their reproductive success than males and are correspondingly selected for the bigger body size and elaborate traits usually characteristic of males.
The selection pressures on males and females to obtain matings is known as sexual selection; it can result in the development of secondary sexual characteristics that do not benefit the individual’s likelihood of survival but help to maximize its reproductive success. Sexual selection can be so strong that it selects for traits that are actually detrimental to the individual’s survival. Think, once again, about the peacock’s tail.
While it is beautiful and the male with the largest, most colorful tail is more likely to win the female, it is not the most practical appendage. In addition to being more visible to predators, it makes the males slower in their attempted escapes. There is some evidence that this risk, in fact, is why females like the big tails in the first place. The speculation is that large tails carry risk, and only the best males survive that risk: the bigger the tail, the more fit the male. This idea is known as the handicap principle.
The good genes hypothesis states that males develop these impressive ornaments to show off their efficient metabolism or their ability to fight disease. Females then choose males with the most impressive traits because it signals their genetic superiority, which they will then pass on to their offspring. Though it might be argued that females should not be picky because it will likely reduce their number of offspring, if better males father more fit offspring, it may be beneficial. Fewer, healthier offspring may increase the chances of survival more than many, weaker offspring.
In 1915, biologist Ronald Fisher proposed another model of sexual selection: the Fisherian runaway model, which suggests that selection of certain traits is a result of sexual preference.
In both the handicap principle and the good genes hypothesis, the trait is said to be an honest signal of the males’ quality, thus giving females a way to find the fittest mates— males that will pass the best genes to their offspring.