Sensory bias as an explanation for the evolution of mate preferences

Rebecca C. Fuller, David Houle, Joseph Travis

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The sensory bias model of sexual selection posits that female mating preferences are by-products of natural selection on sensory systems. Although sensory bias was proposed 20 years ago, its critical assumptions remain untested. This paradox arises because sensory bias has been used to explain two different phenomena. First, it has been used as a hypothesis about signal design, that is, that males evolve traits that stimulate female sensory systems. Second, sensory bias has been used as a hypothesis for the evolution of female preference itself, that is, to explain why females exhibit particular preferences. We focus on this second facet. First, we clarify the unique features of sensory bias relative to the alternative models by considering each in the same quantitative genetic framework. The key assumptions of sensory bias are that natural selection is the predominant evolutionary mechanism that affects preference and that sexual selection on preferences is quantitatively negligible. We describe four studies that would test these assumptions and review what we can and cannot infer about sensory bias from existing studies. We suggest that the importance of sensory bias as an explanation for the evolution of female preferences remains to be determined.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)437-446
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2005


  • Direct benefits
  • Female choice
  • Fisherian runaway
  • Good-genes model
  • Sensory exploitation
  • Sexual conflict

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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