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Trivers and Willard's suggestion that natural selection favors maternal control of offspring sex ratio in relation to maternal condition has been much debated. The theoretical plausibility of the idea, under some conditions, is firmly established, and there is strong empirical support for conditional sex allocation in some taxa. However, the extent to which this hypothesis can be applied to mammals, particularly ungulates, has been more controversial. We used meta-analysis to review published studies of the Trivers-Willard hypothesis within ungulates and to assess the overall level of empirical support for the hypothesis. Overall, data from 37 studies of 18 species suggested a weak but significant positive correlation between maternal condition and sex ratio (r=+0.09). However, average effect size differed markedly between different categories of studies. Studies using measures of maternal condition that were taken preconception and on the basis of behavioral dominance provided strong evidence for a relationship between maternal condition and the sex ratio (r=+0.17-0.25). In contrast, studies that used morphological or physiological measures of condition that were measured postconception provided little or no evidence for a relationship between maternal condition and sex ratio (r=+0.05-0.06). There are several reasons to suggest that data collected postconception and relying on morphological measures of condition are less likely to capture variables that cause selection for biased sex allocation. In addition, we found that the relationship between sex ratio and maternal condition depended on life-history characteristics; relationships were stronger when sexual size dimorphism was more male biased and when gestation periods were longer. Overall, our analyses suggest that data from ungulates are consistent with the Trivers-Willard hypothesis but only when appropriate measures are used.

Original publication




Journal article


Am Nat

Publication Date





40 - 54


Animals, Artiodactyla, Body Constitution, Female, Models, Biological, Perissodactyla, Selection, Genetic, Sex Ratio, Social Dominance