Male reproductive success is determined by the ability of males to gain sexual access to females and by their ability to fertilize ova. Among polygynous mammals, males differ markedly in their reproductive success, and a great deal of effort has been made to understand how selective forces have shaped traits that enhance male competitiveness both before and after copulation (i.e., sperm competition). However, the possibility that males also may differ in their fertility has been ignored under the assumption that male infertility is rare in natural populations because selection against it is likely to be strong. In the present study, we examined which semen traits correlate with male fertility in natural populations of Iberian red deer (Cervus elaphus hispanicus). We found no trade-offs between semen traits. Our analyses revealed strong associations between sperm production and sperm swimming velocity, sperm motility and proportion of morphologically normal spermatozoa, and sperm viability and acrosome integrity. These last two variables had the lowest coefficients of variation, suggesting that these traits have stabilized at high values and are unlikely to be related to fitness. In a fertility trial, our results show a large degree of variation in male fertility, and differences in fertility were determined mainly by sperm swimming velocity and by the proportion of morphologically normal sperm. We conclude that male fertility varies substantially in natural populations of Iberian red deer and that, when sperm numbers are equal, it is determined mainly by sperm swimming velocity and sperm morphology.
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