Selection on bristle length has the ability to drive the evolution of male abdominal appendages in the sepsid flyThemira biloba

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Many exaggerated and novel traits are strongly influenced by sexual selection. Although sexual selection is a powerful evolutionary force, underlying genetic interactions can constrain evolutionary outcomes. The relative strength of selection vs. constraint has been a matter of debate for the evolution of male abdominal appendages in sepsid flies. These abdominal appendages are involved in courtship and mating, but their function has not been directly tested. We performed mate choice experiments to determine whether sexual selection acts on abdominal appendages in the sepsid Themira biloba. We tested whether appendage bristle length influenced successful insemination by surgically trimming the bristles. Females paired with males that had shortened bristles laid only unfertilized eggs, indicating that long bristles are necessary for successful insemination. We also tested whether the evolution of bristle length was constrained by phenotypic correlations with other traits. Analyses of phenotypic covariation indicated that bristle length was highly correlated with other abdominal appendage traits, but was not correlated with abdominal sternite size. Thus, abdominal appendages are not exaggerated traits like many sexual ornaments, but vary independently from body size. At the same time, strong correlations between bristle length and appendage length suggest that selection on bristle length is likely to result in a correlated increase in appendage length. Bristle length is under sexual selection in T. biloba and has the potential to evolve independently from abdomen size.

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