PerspectiveEvolutionary Biology

Are clever males preferred as mates?

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Science  11 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6423, pp. 120-121
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw1811

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Being smart is a good thing, or so smart people like to think. Indeed, the possibility that superior cognition confers an evolutionary advantage, specifically a reproductive fitness benefit, is intuitively appealing. Of the three general fitness components—survivorship/longevity, fecundity, and mating success—the best-documented association involves survivorship. Across species, comparatively large-brained mammals and birds, which are thought to have superior cognitive capacities, show greater longevity than their smaller-brained relatives (1, 2). In addition, within-species comparisons of problem-solving ability, especially in foraging contexts, have shown positive correlations with fecundity (3, 4). Yet, what is arguably the most famous hypothesized fitness benefit of superior cognition has seldom been studied in nonhumans: the sexual selection hypothesis that clever individuals are preferred as mating partners (5, 6). Recent research on several species of birds does suggest that females are attracted to males that are adept at problem-solving (7, 8). In most instances, however, researchers have inferred female preference for cognitive superiority from the expression of traits (e.g., plumage or song) that correlate with cognitive performance. Unfortunately, such correlative studies cannot establish that superior cognitive ability per se is the basis of an observed mate preference. On page 166 of this issue, Chen et al. (9) report tackling this problem by directly testing female preference for male problem-solving ability, using a small Australian parrot, the budgerigar.