Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Disentangling the determinants of reproductive success in a temperate reef fish, Forsterygion lapillum

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posted on 2021-12-09, 11:52 authored by Tornquist, McKenzie Grace

Identifying sources of individual variation in reproductive success has been a longstanding challenge for evolutionary ecologists. Reproductive success among individuals can be due to several factors such as competition between conspecifics for nest sites and mating partners, mate choice, or by the physical environment. Reproductive success, particularly among males, can be extremely diverse both within and between species and determining which components contribute to success can be particularly challenging. In this thesis, I investigated patterns and drivers of reproductive success in a temperate marine reef fish, Forsterygion lapillum (the common triplefin). Specifically, I examined how male quality, nest quality, and female choice influence male reproductive success. Additionally, I quantified male reproductive success during the winter and summer of the breeding season to examine the temporal dynamics of breeding success in F. lapillum.   Selection of mates by females can be driven by the quality and behavioural attributes of the male or by the quality of resources offered. In Chapter 2, using field-based observations, combined with a lab-based study, I evaluated the effects of different male traits and nest characteristics on female choice and male reproductive success. Specifically, I observed egg guarding males in the field during the breeding season and recorded their phenotypic traits, behaviours, and nest characteristics. I then examined their influence on 3 different components of male reproductive success (brood size, individual egg size, and mate attraction). Additionally, I conducted dichotomous choice tests in the laboratory to evaluate female preference for different sized males, holding different sized nests. In the field, I did not detect a significant relationship between male mating success and male total length or nest size. Brood size and individual egg size were highly variable among sampled males, however, further factors such as courtship frequency, and the number of interactions with potential predators did not explain any additional variation. The number of agonistic displays performed by egg guarding males was the only factor to influence egg size, however, it had no direct impact on brood size or mate attraction. On the contrary, results from the laboratory experiment suggested that male total length and nest size were important during female choice. Females were attracted to and spawned more frequently with larger males holding larger nests. Additionally, females showed a particular preference towards males that displayed intense courtship behaviours. These results suggest that variation in reproductive success among individuals is not random in the common triplefin (F. lapillum) and may be due to a range of complex factors.  In natural systems, individual variation in mating success is known to be highly dynamic and vary over time. In Chapter 3, I addressed 3 questions related to reproductive success in male common triplefin: 1) Does the operational sex ratio (OSR) and the density of individuals change predictably within the breeding season? 2) Does male reproductive success change within the breeding season? And 3) Does the age and growth rate of successful males change within the breeding season? To address these questions, I sampled a population of F. lapillum during two periods of the breeding season and quantified a set of morphological and physical traits. Furthermore, I reconstructed individual life histories from the otoliths of egg guarding males. My results show that the density of individuals in the population increased during the summer months, but the operational sex ratio (OSR) remained male-biased. Male reproductive success in terms of brood size and average egg size did not fluctuate during the sampling period. However, the size of males and the size of the nest (cobblestone) held by males was significantly larger in summer compared to winter. Interestingly, successful males sampled in the winter had hatched significantly earlier than successful males sampled in the summer, but their average growth rate remained similar. These findings indicate that variation in male traits across the breeding season plays an important role in female mate choice. The mating system and pool of mating individuals in the common triplefin (F. lapillum) is highly dynamic over the year and has the potential to shape the success of individuals.   Overall, this study emphasizes the importance of considering multiple cues and temporal dynamics when disentangling the determinants of individual reproductive success. These findings suggest that male-male competition and female mate choice have a significant influence on male reproductive success. The reproductive ecology of F. lapillum is highly complex and my research has provided valuable insight into its dynamic nature. These results may apply to other species with male parental care and provides an important contribution towards understanding sexual selection and the evolution of mating systems with male parental care.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Marine Biology

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Centre for Marine Environmental and Economic Research

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Shima, Jeffery