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Alternative male morphologies are common in a wide range of organisms and particularly extreme in horned beetles. Here, large males (majors) commonly develop extravagant weaponry such as horns or enlarged mandibles, whereas small males (minors) develop only rudimentary traits. In some taxa, including the genus Onthophagus, the transition from minors to majors occurs over a very small range of body sizes causing intermediate morphologies to be rare or absent from natural populations. Several studies have shown that majors use horns as weapons during male combat over females and that the possession of horns increases male fighting success, and presumably fitness. However, the advantages of a hornless morphology, if any, have remained elusive. Here the alternative male morphs are examined in the horn-polyphenic beetle Onthophagus nigriventris. In particular, the hypothesis was tested that lack of horns in minors increases their maneuverability inside tunnel systems in which these males sneak matings from major males. Using a simple behavioral assay the effects of horn possession on maneuverability were quantified inside an artificial tunnel. Minors were found to be significantly more mobile compared to majors. No such differences were found in mobility between similarly small and large females, which always lack horns. This suggests that mobility differences observed among male morphs are due to the presence or absence of horns rather than differences in body size. This notion was further supported in a second experiment in which surgical removal of horns significantly improved maneuverability, while subsequent re-attachment of horns reversed this effect. These results suggest that lack of horns increases male maneuverability inside tunnels and may thus be advantageous in the context of the particular social niche inhabited by minor males. The results are discussed in the context of the evolutionary ecology of horn-polyphenic beetles.
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