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Opsin expression predicts male nuptial color in threespine stickleback

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Theoretical models of sexual selection suggest that male courtship signals can evolve through the build-up of genetic correlations between the male signal and female preference. When preference is mediated via increased sensitivity of the signal characteristics, correlations between male signal and perception/sensitivity are expected. When signal expression is limited to males, we would expect to find signal-sensitivity correlations in males. Here, we document such a correlation within a breeding population of threespine stickleback mediated by differences in opsin expression. Males with redder nuptial coloration express more long-wavelength-sensitive (LWS) opsin, making them more sensitive to orange and red. This correlation is not an artifact of shared tuning to the optical microhabitat. Such correlations are an essential feature of many models of sexual selection, and our results highlight the potential importance of opsin expression variation as a substrate for signal-preference evolution. Finally, these results suggest a potential sensory mechanism that could drive negative frequency-dependent selection via male-male competition and thus maintain variation in male nuptial color.

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