How urbanization affects sexual communication

Justa L. Heinen-Kay, Adam D. Kay, Marlene Zuk

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Urbanization is rapidly altering landscapes worldwide, changing environmental conditions, and creating novel selection pressures for many organisms. Local environmental conditions affect the expression and evolution of sexual signals and mating behaviors; changes in such traits have important evolutionary consequences because of their effect on reproduction. In this review, we synthesize research investigating how sexual communication is affected by the environmental changes associated with urbanization—including pollution from noise, light, and heavy metals, habitat fragmentation, impervious surfaces, urban heat islands, and changes in resources and predation. Urbanization often has negative effects on sexual communication through signal masking, altering condition-dependent signal expression, and weakening female preferences. Though there are documented instances of seemingly adaptive shifts in trait expression, the ultimate impact on fitness is rarely tested. The field of urban evolution is still relatively young, and most work has tested whether differences occur in response to various aspects of urbanization. There is limited information available about whether these responses represent phenotypic plasticity or genetic changes, and the extent to which observed shifts in sexual communication affect reproductive fitness. Our understanding of how sexual selection operates in novel, urbanized environments would be bolstered by more studies that perform common garden studies and reciprocal transplants, and that simultaneously evaluate multiple environmental factors to tease out causal drivers of observed phenotypic shifts. Urbanization provides a unique testing ground for evolutionary biologists to study the interplay between ecology and sexual selection, and we suggest that more researchers take advantage of these natural experiments. Furthermore, understanding how sexual communication and mating systems differ between cities and rural areas can offer insights on how to mitigate negative, and accentuate positive, consequences of urban expansion on the biota, and provide new opportunities to underscore the relevance of evolutionary biology in the Anthropocene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17625-17650
Number of pages26
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number24
StatePublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the University of Minnesota for funding. We are grateful to Pierce Hutton and an anonymous reviewer for providing critical feedback which improved the manuscript. Anne Aulesbrook and Wouter Halfwerk kindly provided images for use in this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


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