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Consequences of placenta evolution

Females laying eggs for external fertilization have no control over the quality of the offspring, and must rely on proxies of male quality such as courtship and display traits. Evolutionary theory holds that all this changed with the advent of the placenta: with low-cost eggs incubated internally, a mother can hedge her bets, inspecting the genetic quality of her mates directly and provisioning her embryos accordingly. The resulting mother–offspring conflict is expected to lead to polyandry (females mating with multiple males) and to males that are smaller, less showy and more prone to opportunistic or 'sneaky' mating. Here Bart Pollux et al. test these ideas by looking at the Poecilidae — guppies and their relatives — a family of fish in which the various species show all varieties of internal and external fertilization, and in which the placenta has evolved at least eight times independently. This approach allows the authors to confirm that the evolution of the placenta is associated with polyandry in females, and smaller, less showy males that have longer penises to facilitate more opportunities for opportunistic mating.

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