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Testing the immunocompetence handicap hypothesis : a review of the evidence

journal contribution
posted on 01.08.2004, 00:00 authored by M Roberts, Kate BuchananKate Buchanan, M Evans
The immunocompetence handicap hypothesis was formulated 12 years ago in an attempt to offer a proximate mechanism by which female choice of males could be explained by endocrine control of honest signalling. The hypothesis suggested that testosterone has a dual effect in males of controlling the development of sexual signals while causing immunosuppression. Our purpose in this review is to examine the empirical evidence to date that has attempted to test the hypothesis, and to conduct a meta-analysis on two of the assumptions of the hypothesis, that testosterone reduces immunocompetence and increases parasitism, to ascertain any statistical trend in the data. There is some evidence to suggest that testosterone is responsible for the magnitude of trait expression or development of sexual traits, but this is by no means conclusive. The results of many studies attempting to find evidence for the supposed immunosuppressive qualities of testosterone are difficult to interpret since they are observational rather than experimental. Of the experimental studies, the data obtained are ambiguous, and this is reflected in the result of the meta-analysis. Overall, the meta-analysis found a significant suppressive effect of testosterone on immunity, in support of the hypothesis, but this effect disappeared when we controlled for multiple studies on the same species. There was no effect of testosterone on direct measures of immunity, but it did increase ectoparasite abundance in several studies, in particular in reptiles. A funnel analysis indicated that the results were robust to a publication bias. Alternative substances that interact with testosterone, such as glucocorticoids, may be important. Ultimately, a greater understanding is required of the complex relationships that exist both within and between the endocrine and immune systems and their consequences for mate choice decision making.



Animal behaviour






227 - 239


Baillière, Tindall and Cassell [etc.].


London, England







Publication classification

C1.1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal

Copyright notice

2004, The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour