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The evolution of female promiscuity poses an intriguing problem as benefits of mating with multiple males often have to arise via indirect, genetic, effects. Studies on birds have documented that multiple paternity is common in natural populations but strong evidence for selection via female benefits is lacking. In an attempt to evaluate the evidence more broadly, we review studies of multiple paternity in natural populations of all major groups of nonavian reptiles. Multiple paternity has been documented in all species investigated so far and commonly exists in over 50% of clutches, with particularly high levels in snakes and lizards. Marine turtles and lizards with prolonged pair-bonding have relatively low levels of multiple paternity but levels are nevertheless higher than in many vertebrates with parental care. There is no evidence that high levels of polyandry are driven by direct benefits to females and the evidence that multiple paternity arises from indirect genetic benefits is weak. Instead, we argue that the most parsimonious explanation for patterns of multiple paternity is that it represents the combined effect of mate-encounter frequency and conflict over mating rates between males and females driven by large male benefits and relatively small female costs, with only weak selection via indirect benefits. A crucial step for researchers is to move from correlative approaches to experimental tests of assumptions and predictions of theory under natural settings, using a combination of molecular techniques and behavioural observations.

Original publication




Journal article


Mol Ecol

Publication Date





2566 - 2580


Animals, Reptiles, Sexual Behavior, Animal