Evolutionary change can be strongly affected by choosing mates with particular characteristics, like a long, colorful tail or wide shoulders. However, empirical data on mate choice has been frustrating to match up to theoretical predictions, with animals sometimes using mate choice patterns that diverge from patterns they “should” be using according to theory.  

To solve this problem, former SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Elizabeth Hobson and her co-authors developed a new mate choice mechanism called ‘Inferred Attractiveness’ that was recently published in PLOS Biology. Using a theoretical model, they tested how male trait variability and female preferences for males would change over time if females acquired their preferences by watching the sort of males other females choose to mate with and unconsciously figure out—sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly—what distinguishes them from other available males. 

Inferred Attractiveness highlights not only the power but also the flexibility of female mate choice as a means of sexual selection. By casting the female brain as the central influence in breeding choices, Inferred Attractiveness captures the dynamic aspects of sexual selection and reconciles inconsistencies between mate choice theory and observed behavior. The research paper is the result of two workshops organized by Hobson and funded by SFI Science. 

Read the paper “Inferred Attractiveness: A generalized mechanism for sexual selection that can maintain variation in traits and preferences over time” in PLOS Biology (October 3, 2023). doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3002269