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May 19, 2014 05:55 PM EDT

Competitive Male Fruit Flies Usually Live Shorter Lives

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Male fruit flies that are competitive usually live shorter lives, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool found that male fruit flies forced to compete with other males become less attractive to females and die young.

"When we see stags fighting over mates, it's obvious what the potential costs to the males are, but in this case it's more subtle. The flies aren't using antlers to beat each other into submission, but instead are harassing each other to the point where exhaustion causes them to die young," Dr. Anne Lize, lead researcher of the study and evolutionary biologist, said in a statement.

For the study, researchers the University of Liverpool's Institute of Integrative Biology kept male fruit flies of the species Drosophila subobscura either alone or in groups. The females of this species are monandrous - they only mate once in their lives, meaning that males have to get very lucky to mate at all. As a result males compete furiously for access to females.

Researchers think that rivals disrupt the flies' sleep patterns, which has already been identified as a cause of early death in many other species, and is potentially harmful to humans.

Males exposed to rivals fare even worse when they finally do meet a virgin female. Females strongly prefer the males that were kept alone, with females refusing to mate with three quarters of the males that previously had to battle with rivals.

"The idea that competition has more subtle effects on a male could be extended to other species that humans are trying to breed or keep healthy," Luze concluded.

The findings were recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

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