Sexually transmitted diseases in polygynous mating systems: Prevalence and impact on reproductive success

P. H. Thrall, J. Antonovics, A. P. Dobson

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Studies of disease in relation to animal mating systems have focused on sexual selection and the evolution of sexual reproduction. Relatively little work has examined other aspects of ecological and evolutionary relationships between host social and sexual behaviour, and dynamics and prevalence of infectious diseases; this is particularly evident with respect to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Here, we use a simulation approach to investigate rates of STD spread in host mating systems ranging from permanent monogamy to serial polygyny or polyandry and complete promiscuity. The model assumes that one sex (female) is differentially attracted to the other, such that groups of varying size are formed within which mating and disease transmission occur. The results show that equilibrium disease levels are generally higher in females than males and are a function of variance in male mating success and the likelihood of a female switching groups between mating seasons. Moreover, initial rates of disease spread (determining whether an STD establishes in a population) depend on patterns of host movement between groups, variance in male mating success and host life history (e.g. mortality rates). Male reproductive success can be reduced substantially by a sterilizing STD and this reduction is greater in males that are more 'attractive' to females. In contrast, females that associate with more attractive males have lower absolute fitness than females associating with less attractive males. Thus, the potential for STDs to act as a constraint on directional selection processes leading to polygyny (or polyandry) is likely to depend on the details of mate choice and group dynamics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1555-1563
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1452
StatePublished - Aug 7 2000
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


  • Disease dynamics
  • Mating system evolution
  • Social and sexual behaviour


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