Parasites, Bright Males, and the Immunocompetence Handicap
It has been argued that females should be able to choose parasite-resistant mates on the basis of the quality of male secondary sexual characters and that such signals must be costly handicaps in order to evolve. To a large extent, handicap hypotheses have relied on energetic explanations for these costs. Here, we have presented a phenomenological model, operating on an intraspecific level, which views the cost of secondary sexual development from an endocrinological perspective. The primary androgenic hormone, testosterone, has a dualistic effect; it stimulates development of characteristics used in sexual selection while reducing immunocompetence. This "double-edged sword" creates a physiological trade-off that influences and is influenced by parasite burden. We propose a negative-feedback loop between signal intensity and parasite burden by suggesting that testosterone-dependent signal intensity is a plastic response. This response is modified in accordance with the competing demands of the potential costs of parasite infection versus that of increased reproductive success afforded by exaggerated signals. We clarify how this trade-off is intimately involved in the evolution of secondary sexual characteristics and how it may explain some of the equivocal empirical results that have surfaced in attempts to quantify parasite's effect on sexual selection.