Modern theory predicts that relative parental investment of the sexes in their young is a key factor responsible for sexual selection. Seahorses and pipefishes (family Syngnathidae) are extraordinary among fishes in their remarkable adaptations for paternal care and frequent occurrences of sex-role reversals (i.e., female-female competition for mates), offering exceptional opportunities to test predictions of sexual selection theory. During mating, the female transfers eggs into or onto specialized egg-brooding structures that are located on either the male's abdomen or its tail, where they are osmoregulated, aerated, and nourished by specially adapted structures. All syngnathid males exhibit this form of parental care but the brooding structures vary, ranging from the simple ventral gluing areas of some pipefishes to the completely enclosed pouches found in seahorses. We present a molecular phylogeny that indicates that the diversification of pouch types is positively correlated with the major evolutionary radiation of the group, suggesting that this extreme development and diversification of paternal care may have been an important evolutionary innovation of the Syngnathidae. Based on recent studies that show that the complexity of brooding structures reflects the degree of paternal investment in several syngnathid species, we predicted sex-role reversals to be more common among species with more complex brooding structures. In contrast to this prediction, however, both parsimony- and likelihood-based reconstructions of the evolution of sex-role reversal in pipefishes and seahorses suggest multiple shifts in sex roles in the group, independent from the degree of brood pouch development. At the same time, our data demonstrate that sex-role reversal is positively associated with polygamous mating patterns, whereas most nonreversed species mate monogamously, suggesting that selection for polygamy or monogamy in pipefishes and seahorses may strongly influence sex roles in the wild.
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Vol. 57 • No. 6