Sequential polyandry affords post-mating sexual selection in the mouths of cichlid females

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Females mating with multiple males may obtain direct benefits such as nuptial gifts or paternal care or indirect (i.e. genetic) benefits resulting in higher-quality offspring. While direct benefits are easily identified, it is difficult to determine indirect benefits, and it is hence largely unclear how they are obtained. This is particularly true in species with external fertilisation, where females seem to have little control over fertilisation. In cichlids, most maternal mouthbrooders show sequential multiple mating, where females visit several males for egg deposition. Genetic data revealed that multiple paternity of eggs and young in the mouth of females is common, but behavioural data of female spawning decisions are missing. Here, we test four hypotheses to explain female multiple mating in the maternally mouthbrooding cichlid, Ophthalmotilapia ventralis: (1) fertilisation insurance, (2) genetic bet-hedging, (3) female choice and (4) ‘sperm shopping' (i.e. induction of sperm competition resulting in sexually selected sperm). Detailed observations of spawning behaviour in the field combined with histological analyses of the male reproductive organs suggest that fertilisation insurance, genetic bet-hedging and pre-mating female choice are unlikely to explain the sequential female multiple mating in O. ventralis. Instead, cryptic female choice by sperm shopping, i.e. post-mating sexual selection, is most compatible with our data and might be the major ultimate cause of multiple mating in females of this species and of mouthbrooding cichlids with maternal care in general. Our study provides new insight into ultimate causes of sequential polyandry in species with external fertilisation, as hitherto post-mating sexual selection by cryptic female choice has been assumed to be incompatible with external fertilisation mechanisms except by components of the ovarian fluid.

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