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Studies of mating preferences have largely neglected the potential effects of individuals encountering their previous mates ('directly sexually familiar'), or new mates that share similarities to previous mates, e.g. from the same family and/or environment ('phenotypically sexually familiar'). Here, we show that male and female Drosophila melanogaster respond to the direct and phenotypic sexual familiarity of potential mates in fundamentally different ways. We exposed a single focal male or female to two potential partners. In the first experiment, one potential partner was novel (not previously encountered) and one was directly familiar (their previous mate); in the second experiment, one potential partner was novel (unrelated, and from a different environment from the previous mate) and one was phenotypically familiar (from the same family and rearing environment as the previous mate). We found that males preferentially courted novel females over directly or phenotypically familiar females. By contrast, females displayed a weak preference for directly and phenotypically familiar males over novel males. Sex-specific responses to the familiarity of potential mates were significantly weaker or absent in Orco(1) mutants, which lack a co-receptor essential for olfaction, indicating a role for olfactory cues in mate choice over novelty. Collectively, our results show that direct and phenotypic sexual familiarity is detected through olfactory cues and play an important role in sex-specific sexual behaviour.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Biol Sci

Publication Date





Coolidge effect, Drosophila melanogaster, Orco, genetic relatedness, individual recognition, Animals, Crosses, Genetic, Cues, Drosophila melanogaster, Female, Male, Mating Preference, Animal, Recognition (Psychology), Sex Factors, Smell