Sexual selection based on signaling requires that signals used by females in mate choice are reliable indicators of a male's heritable total fitness. A signal and the preference for it are expected to be heritable, resulting in the maintenance of genetic covariance between these two traits. However, a recent article has proposed that signals may quickly become unreliable in the presence of both environmental variation and genotype-by-environment interaction (G × E) with crossing reaction norms, potentially compromising the mechanisms of sexual selection. Here we examine the heritability and plasticity of a male dominance advertisement in the bank vole, Clethrionomys glareolus, in stable and changing rearing environments from father to son. The bank vole is naturally exposed to considerable sources of spatial and temporal environmental variation and male reproductive success is determined by both intra- (male–male competition) and inter- (females prefer to mate with dominant males) sexual selection. Significant G × E for male dominance was found with crossing reaction norms. Plasma testosterone level (T), rather than condition, determined a male's dominance and T also showed a significant G × E. Dominance showed a considerable plasticity across environments, but was only heritable under stable conditions. We document a negative between-environments correlation of male dominance, suggesting that when the environment changes between father and son, the dominance signal is unreliable to females and sexual selection may be compromised. We discuss how G × E and environmental variation interacting with other mechanisms may preserve the reliability of signals and thus the mechanism of sexual selection itself.
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