Sexual selection in the fossil record

Regular readers will know that for the last few years I’ve been slowly building a research profile concentrating on the behaviour and ecology of dinosaurs and pterosaurs. While the various papers on feeding behaviour, stomach contents, predation and niche partitioning in theropods has been the more high profile, I think the work on sexual selection is arguably more important as it potentially has profound implications for how we interpret all manner of fossils and how they may (or may not) relate to one another. After all, there’s a major ecological and taxonomic difference between identifying two species of a clade, and one species that exhibits major sexual dimorphism.

My colleagues and I have already looked at the idea that sauropod necks were driven by sexual selection, and after much strife, finally got a paper published discussing mutual sexual selection and the implications that has for diagnosing taxa in the fossil record and what it might mean for parental care and other aspects of behaviour. There’s more to come in these areas as I have further work planned and am involved in some other areas linked to this, so the area is growing rapidly and, I hope, ripe for a general revisit in the literature. However, while these papers have in large part being about drawing out some false assumptions in the literature and providing new hypotheses about sexual selection that could be looked at in the fossil record, they were a bit short on how this could be done, and were if anything, narrow in focus (not that Ornithodira is a small group, but its got nothing on Animalia).

So then to a paper in TREE that came out yesterday online. Led by entomologist Rob Knell, it also includes  Darren Naish and myself and attempts to provide a review of the entire question of sexual selection in the fossil record. We look at ways in which this could be diagnosed, some false dichotomies and assumptions that have been put forwards in the past, try to identify some key features that may help diagnose sexual selection and look at some of the more convincing cases for this that have been put together to date. Clearly there’s a limit to what we can get into under 10 pages for what is supposed to be a review, but I think there’s some nice synthesis in there and a bit more “we can try doing this”-type stuff, that just covering what has been said before. Anyway it’s out and available (though behind a paywall, sorry) so go take a look.

Knell, R., Naish, D., Tompkins, J.L. & Hone, D.W.E. Sexual selection in prehistoric animals: detection and implications. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, in press.

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