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Sexual selection and the physiological consequences of habitat choice by a fiddler crab

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In mid-Atlantic salt marshes, reproductively active male sand fiddler crabs, Uca pugilator, use a single greatly enlarged major claw as both a weapon to defend specialized breeding burrows from other males and an ornament to attract females for mating. During the summer breeding season, females strongly prefer to mate with males controlling burrows in open areas high on the shore. Food availability decreases while temperature and desiccation stress increase with increasing shore height, suggesting that the timing and location of fiddler crab mating activity may result in a potential trade-off between reproductive success and physiological condition for male crabs. We compared thermal preferences in laboratory choice experiments to body temperatures of models and living crabs in the field and found that from the perspective of a fiddler crab, the thermal environment of the mating area is quite harsh relative to other marsh microhabitats. High temperatures significantly constrained fiddler crab activity on the marsh surface, a disadvantage heightened by strongly reduced food availability in the breeding area. Nevertheless, when the chance of successfully acquiring a mate was high, males accepted a higher body temperature (and concomitantly higher metabolic and water loss rates) than when the chances of mating were low. Likewise, experimentally lowering costs by adding food and reducing thermal stress in situ increased fiddler crab waving display levels significantly. Our data suggest that fiddler crabs can mitigate potential life history trade-offs by tuning their behavior in response to the magnitude of both energetic and non-energetic costs and benefits.

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We are grateful to D. Padilla, J. Hoch, P. Bourdeau and M. Doall for assistance in the laboratory and field and helpful comments on the manuscript. We also thank two anonymous reviewers. Sediment analyses were done in the Functional Ecology Research and Teaching Laboratory of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University. This work was supported in part by a Sigma Xi Grant-in-Aid-of-Research, a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (IOB 0508829), a United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Fellowship, and a National Science Foundation Award (OCE 1131038) to B. J. A. The EPA has not officially endorsed this publication and the views expressed herein may not reflect its views. This is contribution 1,231 from the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University.

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Correspondence to Bengt J. Allen.

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Communicated by Pete Peterson.

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Allen, B.J., Levinton, J.S. Sexual selection and the physiological consequences of habitat choice by a fiddler crab. Oecologia 176, 25–34 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-3002-y

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  • Microhabitat use
  • Trade-off
  • Constraint
  • Resource acquisition
  • Female choice
  • Uca pugilator