A comparative test of adaptive hypotheses for sexual size dimorphism in lizards

Robert M. Cox, Stephanie L. Skelly, Henry B. John-Alder

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294 Scopus citations


It is commonly argued that sexual size dimorphism (SSD) in lizards has evolved in response to two primary, nonexclusive processes: (1) sexual selection for large male size, which confers an advantage in intrasexual mate competition (intrasexual selection hypothesis), and (2) natural selection for large female size, which confers a fecundity advantage (fecundity advantage hypothesis). However, outside of several well-studied lizard genera, the empirical support for these hypotheses has not been examined with appropriate phylogenetic control. We conducted a comparative phylogenetic analysis to test these hypotheses using literature data from 497 lizard populations representing 302 species and 18 families. As predicted by the intrasexual selection hypothesis, male aggression and territoriality are correlated with SSD, but evolutionary shifts in these categorical variables each explain less than 2% of the inferred evolutionary change in SSD. We found stronger correlations between SSD and continuous estimates of intrasexual selection such as male to female home range ratio and female home range size. These results are consistent with the criticism that categorical variables may obscure much of the actual variation in intrasexual selection intensity needed to explain patterns in SSD. In accordance with the fecundity advantage hypothesis, SSD is correlated with clutch size, reproductive frequency, and reproductive mode (but not fecundity slope, reduced major axis estimator of fecundity slope, length of reproductive season, or latitude). However, evolutionary shifts in clutch size explain less than 8% of the associated change in SSD, which also varies significantly in the absence of evolutionary shifts in reproductive frequency and mode. A multiple regression model retained territoriality and clutch size as significant predictors of SSD, but only 16% of the variation in SSD is explained using these variables. Intrasexual selection for large male size and fecundity selection for large female size have undoubtedly helped to shape patterns of SSD across lizards, but the comparative data at present provide only weak support for these hypotheses as general explanations for SSD in this group. Future work would benefit from the consideration of alternatives to these traditional evolutionary hypotheses, and the elucidation of proximate mechanisms influencing growth and SSD within populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1653-1669
Number of pages17
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


  • Body size
  • Comparative method
  • Fecundity
  • Phylogeny
  • Sexual selection


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