Under strong sexual selection, certain species evolve distinct intrasexual, alternative reproductive tactics (ARTs). In many cases, ARTs can be viewed as environmentally-cued threshold traits, such that ARTs coexist if their relative fitness alternates over the environmental cue gradient. Surprisingly, the chemical ecology of ARTs has been underexplored in this context. To our knowledge, no prior study has directly quantified pheromone production for ARTs in a male-polymorphic species. Here, we used the bulb mite—in which males are either armed fighters that kill conspecifics, or unarmed scramblers—as a model system to gain insight into the role of pheromones in the evolutionary maintenance of ARTs. Given that scramblers forgo investment into weaponry, we tested whether scramblers produce higher pheromone quantities than fighters, which would improve the fitness of the scrambler phenotype, e.g. through female mimicry to avoid aggression from competitors. To this end, we sampled mites from a rich and a poor nutritional environment and quantified their production of the female sex pheromone α-acaridial through gas chromatography analysis.
We found a positive relationship between pheromone production and body size, but males exhibited a steeper slope in pheromone production with increasing size than females. Females exhibited a higher average pheromone production than males. We found no significant difference in slope of pheromone production over body size between fighters and scramblers. However, scramblers reached larger body sizes and higher pheromone production than fighters, providing some evidence for a potential female mimic strategy adopted by large scramblers. Pheromone production was significantly higher in mites from the rich nutritional environment than the poor environment.
Further elucidation of pheromone functionality in bulb mites, and additional inter- and intrasexual comparisons of pheromone profiles are needed to determine if the observed intersexual and intrasexual differences in pheromone production are adaptive, if they are a by-product of allometric scaling, or diet-mediated pheromone production under weak selection. We argue chemical ecology offers a novel perspective for research on ARTs and other complex life-history traits.