Sex - Sexual Dimorphism

Sexual Dimorphism

Many animals and some plants have differences between the male and female sexes in size and appearance, a phenomenon called sexual dimorphism. Sex differences in humans include, generally, a larger size and more body hair in men; women have breasts, wider hips, and a higher body fat percentage. In other species, the differences may be more extreme, such as differences in coloration or bodyweight.

Sexual dimorphisms in animals are often associated with sexual selection – the competition between individuals of one sex to mate with the opposite sex. Antlers in male deer, for example, are used in combat between males to win reproductive access to female deer. In many cases the male of a species is larger than the female. Mammal species with extreme sexual size dimorphism tend to have highly polygynous mating systems—presumably due to selection for success in competition with other males—such as the elephant seals. Other examples demonstrate that it is the preference of females that drive sexual dimorphism, such as in the case of the stalk-eyed fly.

Other animals, including most insects and many fish, have larger females. This may be associated with the cost of producing egg cells, which requires more nutrition than producing sperm—larger females are able to produce more eggs. For example, female southern black widow spiders are typically twice as long as the males. Occasionally this dimorphism is extreme, with males reduced to living as parasites dependent on the female, such as in the anglerfish. Some plant species also exhibit dimorphism in which the females are significantly larger than the males, such as in the moss Dicranum and the liverwort Sphaerocarpos. There is some evidence that, in these genera, the dimorphism may be tied to a sex chromosome, or to chemical signalling from females.

In birds, males often have a more colourful appearance and may have features (like the long tail of male peacocks) that would seem to put the organism at a disadvantage (e.g. bright colors would seem to make a bird more visible to predators). One proposed explanation for this is the handicap principle. This hypothesis says that, by demonstrating he can survive with such handicaps, the male is advertising his genetic fitness to females—traits that will benefit daughters as well, who will not be encumbered with such handicaps.

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