Musth and sexual selection in elephants: A review of signalling properties and potential fitness consequences
Chase A. LaDue, Bruce A. Schulte, Wendy K. Kiso & Elizabeth W. Freeman
September 17, 2021
Sexual selection mediated by multimodal signals is common among polygynous species, including seasonally breeding mammals. Indirect benefit models provide plausible explanations for how and why mate selection can occur in the absence of direct benefits. Musth — an asynchronous reproductive state in male elephants — facilitates both inter- and intrasexual selection via indirect benefits, and it is further communicated through a multimodal signal. In this review, we synthesise existing evidence that supports the hypothesis that musth is a multimodal signal subject to sexual selection and that male elephants increase their direct fitness by propagating this signal while females accrue indirect benefits. Musth is characterised by a suite of physiological and behavioural changes, serving to facilitate copulation between the sexes, and via multisensory modalities musth conveys honest information about the condition of a male. Female elephants mate preferentially with musth males, increasing their own fitness in the absence of direct benefits. In addition, musth resolves dynamic dominance hierarchies among male elephants and often eliminates the need for costly physical combat. Future work in this field should investigate potential postcopulatory selection mechanisms in elephants, including sperm competition and cryptic female choice. These topics join other fundamental questions related to sexual selection, signalling, and indirect benefits that are still unanswered in elephants.