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Sexual dimorphism in steppe tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii): influence of the environment and sexual selection on body shape and mobility

Sexual dimorphism in steppe tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii): influence of the environment and sexual selection on body shape and mobility

Biological Journal of the Linnean Society ch; 72(3): 357-372

Selective forces shape sexes differently, with male body proportions facing strong selection to enhance mate searching and male-to-male combat traits, and female fitness being influenced by the ability to assimilate large amounts of nutrients necessary for vitellogenesis (and/or gestation), and their ability to carry the eggs or embryos. We evaluated the sexual dimorphism of body proportion of more than 800 wild steppe tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii) in Uzbekistan. The thick, well-developed shell offers protection from predators but pronounced digging habits probably also constrain body shape (e.g. a shell that is dorso-ventrally flattened, although round from a dorsal view helps to penetrate into, and move within the soil). Thus, in this species, natural selection might favour a heavy and flat shell that is 'closed' with small openings for appendages. In males, these environmental influences appear to be countered by sexual selection. Compared to females, they weigh less (absolutely and relative to shell dimensions), have longer legs, have shell structure allowing wider movements for their legs, and they walk faster. Males were also able to right themselves more quickly than females did in experimental tests. This quick righting ability is critical because intra-sexual combats frequently result in males being flipped onto their backs and becoming prone to hyperthermia or predation. Females are heavily built, with wide shells (relative to male shells), which may provide space for carrying eggs. From our results, a number of simple hypotheses can be tested on a wide range of chelonian species.

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