Sexual dimorphism

Mandarin ducks, male (left) and female (right), illustrating the dramatic difference between sexes

Sexual dimorphism is the condition where the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs. The condition occurs in many animals and some plants. Differences may include secondary sex characteristics, size, weight, color, markings, and may also include behavioral and cognitive differences. These differences may be subtle or exaggerated, and may be subjected to sexual selection. The opposite of dimorphism is monomorphism.[1]


The peacock, on the right, is courting the peahen, on the left.
Male (bottom) and female mallards. The male mallard has an unmistakable bottle green head when its breeding plumage is present.
Orgyia antiqua male (left) and female (right).

Ornamentation and coloration

Common and easily identified types of dimorphism consist of ornamentation and coloration, though not always apparent. A difference in coloration of sexes within a given species is called sexual dichromatism, which is commonly seen in many species of birds and reptiles.[2] Sexual selection leads to the exaggerated dimorphic traits that are used predominantly in competition over mates. The increased fitness resulting from ornamentation offsets its cost to produce or maintain suggesting complex evolutionary implications, but the costs and evolutionary implications vary from species to species.[3]

Exaggerated ornamental traits are used predominantly in the competition over mates, implying sexual selection.[4] Ornaments may be costly to produce or maintain, which has complex evolutionary implications[5] but the costs and implications differ depending on the nature of the ornamentation (such as the colour mechanism involved).

The peafowl constitute conspicuous illustrations of the principle. The ornate plumage of peacocks, as used in the courting display, attracts peahens. At first sight one might mistake peacocks and peahens for completely different species because of the vibrant colours and the sheer size of the male's plumage; the peahen being of a subdued brown coloration.[6] The plumage of the peacock increases its vulnerability to predators because it is a hindrance in flight, and it renders the bird conspicuous in general.[6] Similar examples are manifold, such as in birds of paradise and argus pheasants.

Another example of sexual dichromatism is that of the nestling blue tits. Males are chromatically more yellow than females. It is believed that this is obtained by the ingestion of green lepidopteran larvae, which contain large amounts of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.[7] This diet also affects the sexually dimorphic colours in the human-invisible UV spectrum.[8][9] Hence, the male birds, although appearing yellow to humans actually have a violet-tinted plumage that is seen by females. This plumage is thought to be an indicator of male parental abilities.[10] Perhaps this is a good indicator for females because it shows that they are good at obtaining a food supply from which the carotenoid is obtained. There is a positive correlation between the chromas of the tail and breast feathers and body condition.[11] Carotenoids play an important role in immune function for many animals, so carotenoid dependent signals might indicate health.[12]

Frogs constitute another conspicuous illustration of the principle. There are two types of dichromatism for frog species: ontogenetic and dynamic. Ontogenetic frogs are more common and have permanent color changes in males or females. Litoria lesueuri is an example of a dynamic frog that has temporary color changes in males during breeding season.[13] Hyperolius ocellatus is an ontogenetic frog with dramatic differences in both color and pattern between the sexes. At sexual maturity, the males display a bright green with white dorsolateral lines.[14] In contrast, the females are rusty red to silver with small spots. The bright coloration in the male population serves to attract females and as an aposematic sign to potential predators.

Females often show a preference for exaggerated male secondary sexual characteristics in mate selection.[15] The sexy son hypothesis explains that females prefer more elaborate males and select against males that are dull in color, independent of the species' vision.[16]

Similar sexual dimorphism and mating choice are also observed in many fish species. For example, male guppies have colorful spots and ornamentations while females are generally grey in color. Female guppies prefer brightly colored males to duller males.[17]

Physiological differentiation

In redlip blennies, only the male fish develops an organ at the anal-urogenital region that produces antimicrobial substances. During parental care, males rub their anal-urogenital regions over their nests' internal surfaces, thereby protecting their eggs from microbial infections, one of the most common causes for mortality in young fish.[18]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Geslagsdimorfie
Alemannisch: Sexualdimorphismus
башҡортса: Енси диморфизм
беларуская: Палавы дымарфізм
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Плоцевы дымарфізм
Esperanto: Seksa duformismo
한국어: 성적 이형성
Bahasa Indonesia: Dimorfisme seksual
latviešu: Dzimumdimorfisms
македонски: Полов диморфизам
Bahasa Melayu: Dimorfisme seks
Nederlands: Seksuele dimorfie
日本語: 性的二形
norsk nynorsk: Kjønnsdimorfisme
português: Dimorfismo sexual
Simple English: Sexual dimorphism
slovenščina: Spolna dvoličnost
српски / srpski: Полни диморфизам
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Seksualni dimorfizam
Tiếng Việt: Dị hình giới tính
粵語: 兩性異形
中文: 两性异形