Under the indicator models of mate choice, female preferences evolve to exploit the condition-dependence or “indicator value” of male traits, which in turn may cause these traits to evolve to elaborate extremes. If the indicator value of a male trait changes, the payoff function of the female preference for that trait should change and the preference should evolve to a new optimum. I tested this prediction in the guppy, Poecilia reticulata, a species in which the indicator value of a sexually selected male trait, carotenoid coloration, varies geographically. Carotenoid coloration is thought to be an indicator of foraging ability and health because animals must obtain carotenoid pigments from their diet. The primary dietary source of carotenoids for guppies is unicellular algae, the abundance of which varies among natural streams because of variation in forest canopy cover. Carotenoid availability limits male coloration to a greater extent in streams with greater forest canopy cover. Thus, the indicator value of male coloration covaries positively with canopy cover. To test the indicator model prediction, I measured genetic divergence in the strength of female preferences for carotenoid coloration between high- and low-carotenoid availability streams in each of three river drainages. Second-generation laboratory-born females were given a choice between full-sib males raised on three different dietary levels of carotenoids. For all six populations, male attractiveness (as determined from the responses of females to male courtship displays) increased with dietary carotenoid levels. However, the strength of female preferences differed between populations in the predicted direction in only one of three river drainages. These results fail to support a crucial prediction of the indicator model. More studies taking an interpopulation approach to studying mate preference evolution are needed before the explanatory value of the indicator models can be rigorously assessed.
Corresponding Editor: B. Sullivan