Sexual selection theory traditionally considers choosiness for mates to be negatively related to intra-sexual competition. Males were classically considered to be the competing, but not the choosy, sex. However, evidence of male choosiness is now accumulating. Male choosiness is expected to increase with an individual's competitive ability, and to decrease as intra-sexual competition increases. However, such predictions have never been tested in field conditions. Here, we explore male mate choice in a spider by studying size-assortative pairing in two natural sites that strongly differ in the level of male–male competition. Unexpectedly, our results demonstrate that mate choice shifts from opportunism to high selectivity as competition between males increases. Males experiencing weak competition did not exhibit size-related mating preferences. By contrast, when competition was intense we found strong size-assortative pairing due to male choice: while larger, more competitive males preferentially paired with larger, more fecund females, smaller males chose smaller females. Thus, we show that mating preferences of males vary with their competitive ability. The distinct preferences exhibited by males of different sizes seem to be an adaptive response to the lower reproductive opportunities arising from increased competition between males.
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