Reproductive Foragers: Male Spiders Choose Mates By Selecting Among Competitive Environments
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Mate choice frequently operates differently for males and females as a consequence of male competition for mates. Competitive interactions can alter the fitness payoffs of choice and the realization of preferences under natural conditions, yet the majority of male choice studies still use binary trials that ignore social factors. Here we test the importance of contest dynamics in male choice using a framework in which females are considered analogous to foraging patches that are subject to competition. We track the mate choices and interactions of 640 spiders (Nephila plumipes) before and after manipulation of competition within enclosures, modeling the expected fitness payoffs of each male's actual choices and comparing these with all alternative choices. Many males choose new mates once social conditions change and achieve higher fitness than predicted under random movement. Males do not simply move to larger females but choose favorable competitive environments that balance competition and female fecundity, thereby increasing their fitness payoffs. Further, we show for the first time that prior-residence effects, which are known to influence male contests, also have a strong influence in male reproductive contests and can shape male mate choice. These results highlight the importance of situating male choice studies in the relevant social context, as intrasexual interactions can have profound effects on the realization and payoffs of male mate-choice strategies.