Amanda N. Cooper, Christopher B. Cunningham, Jeremy S. Morris, James S. Ruff, Wayne K. Potts, and David R. Carrier
Intense physical competition between males for mating opportunities is widespread among mammals. In such agonistic encounters, males with combinations of morphological, physiological and behavioral characters that allow them to dominate an opponent have greater fitness. However, the specific physical traits associated with competitive ability are poorly understood. Larger body size is often correlated with fitness in mammals. Interestingly, fitness is maximized at intermediate body masses in male house mice (Mus musculus), a species with a polygynous mating system in which males compete physically for access to reproductive resources. Here, we used competition trials in semi-natural, mixed-sex population enclosures to directly measure competitive ability in male house mice based on control of a preferred nesting site. We tested the hypothesis that the musculoskeletal systems of male mice demonstrating high competitive ability are more specialized for competition by comparing the masses of 10 major muscle groups and eight bones as well as a set of 12 skeletal shape indices associated with anatomical specialization for fighting performance in a set of nine winners and 20 losers. Winning males possessed several traits hypothesized to enhance performance in male–male contests: relatively greater mass in several muscle groups and bones of the forelimb and hindlimb and larger scapular surface area. Unexpectedly, no measurements of the head and neck differed significantly between winners and losers. These results identify musculoskeletal traits associated with competitive ability in male house mice and suggest that our current understanding of mammalian fighting performance is incomplete and more nuanced than previously considered.