Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Disruptive sexual selection for plumage coloration in a passerine bird


The theory of sexual selection was developed to explain the evolution of highly exaggerated sexual ornaments1. Now supported by vast empirical evidence2, sexual selection is generally considered to favour individuals with the most extreme trait expression2,3,4. Here we describe disruptive selection on a sexual ornament, plumage coloration, in yearling male lazuli buntings (Passerina amoena). In habitats with limited good-quality nesting cover, the dullest and the brightest yearlings were more successful in obtaining high-quality territories, pairing with females and siring offspring, than yearlings with intermediate plumage. This pattern reflects the way that territorial adult males vary levels of aggression to influence the structure of their social neighbourhood. Adult males showed less aggression towards dull yearlings than intermediate and bright ones, permitting the dull yearlings to settle on good territories nearby. Fitness comparisons based on paternity analyses showed that both the adults and dull yearlings benefited genetically from this arrangement, revealing a rare example of sexually selected male–male cooperation5,6.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Variation in plumage coloration of male lazuli buntings.
Figure 2: Social and genetic consequences of plumage variation in males.
Figure 3: Relation between plumage coloration of an intruding male and the maximum intensity of aggressive interactions with adult male territory holders during territory settlement.
Figure 4: Dull yearling neighbours are paternity buffers for adult males.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (Murray, London, 1881).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Andersson, M. Sexual Selection (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 1994).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Lande, R. Models of speciation by sexual selection on polygenic traits. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 78, 3721– 3725 (1981).

    Article  ADS  MathSciNet  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Endler, J. A. Natural Selection in the Wild (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  5. McDonald, D. B. & Potts, W. K. Cooperative display and relatedness among males in a lek-mating bird. Science 266, 1030–1032 (1994).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Noë, R. & Hammerstein, P. Biological markets: supply and demand determine the effect of partner choice in cooperation, mutualism and mating. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 35, 1– 11 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Greene, E., Muehter, V. R. & Davison, W. in Birds of North America (eds Poole, A. & Gill, F.) No. 232 (The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia & The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington DC, 1996 ).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Price, T. D. Sexual selection on body size, territory and plumage variables in a population of Darwin's Finches. Evolution 38, 327– 341 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Muehter, V. M., Greene, E. & Ratcliffe, L. Delayed plumage maturation in Lazuli buntings: tests of the female mimicry and status signalling hypotheses. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 41, 281–290 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Rohwer, S., Fretwell, S. D. & Niles, D. M. Delayed plumage maturation and the deceptive acquisition of resources. Am. Nat. 115, 400– 437 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Lyon, B. E. & Montgomerie, R. D. Delayed plumage maturation in passerine birds: reliable signaling by subordinate males? Evolution 40, 605–615 ( 1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Schluter, D. Estimating the form of natural selection on a quantitative trait. Evolution 42, 849–861 ( 1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Smith, T. B. Disruptive selection and the genetic basis of bill size polymorphism in the African finch Pyrenestes ostrinus. Nature 363 , 618–620 (1993).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Gross, M. R. Disruptive selection for alternative life history strategies in salmon. Nature 313, 47–48 ( 1985).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Sappington, T. W. & Taylor, O. R. Disruptive sexual selection in Colias eurytheme butterflies. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 87, 6132–6135 ( 1990).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Morton, E. S., Forman, L. & Braun, M. Extra-pair fertilizations and the evolution of colonial breeding in purple martins. Auk 107, 275 –283 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Møller, A. P. & Birkhead, T. The evolution of plumage brightness in birds is related to extra-pair paternity. Evolution 48, 1089–1100 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Yezerinac, S. M. & Weatherhead, P. J. Extra-pair mating, male plumage coloration and sexual selection in yellow warblers ( Dendroica petechia). Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 264, 527–532 (1997).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Dugatkin, L. A. & Sargent, R. C. Male-male association patterns and female proximity in the guppy, Poecilia reticulata. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 35, 141–145 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Wagner, R. H. The pursuit of extra-pair copulations by female birds: a new hypothesis of colony formation. J. Theor. Biol. 163, 333 –346 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Gibbs, H. L. et al. Realized reproductive success of polygynous red-winged blackbirds revealed by DNA markers. Science 250, 1394 –1397 (1990).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Rohwer, S. & Butcher, G. S. Winter versus summer explanations of delayed plumage maturation in temperate passerine birds. Am. Nat. 131, 556–572 ( 1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Orians, G. H. On the evolution of mating systems in birds and mammals. Am. Nat. 103, 589–603 ( 1969).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Emlen, S. T. & Oring, L. W. Ecology, sexual selection and the evolution of animal mating systems. Science 197, 215–223 (1977).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Birkhead, T. R. & Møller, A. P. Sperm Competition in Birds: Evolutionary Causes and Consequences (Academic, London, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Davies, N. B. Sexual conflict and the polygamy threshold. Anim. Behav. 38, 226–234 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Young, B. E. Annual molts and interruption of the fall migration for molting in Lazuli buntings. Condor 93, 236– 250 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hunt, S., Bennett, A., Cuthill, I. & Griffith, R. Blue tits are ultraviolet tits. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 265, 451–455 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Lessells, C. M. & Boag, P. T. Unrepeatable repeatabilities: a common mistake. Auk 104, 116– 121 (1987).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Otter, K., Ratcliffe, L., Michaud, D. & Boag, P. T. Do female black-capped chickadees prefer high-ranking males as extra-pair partners? Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 43, 25 –36 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


S. Cosh and T. Rooneem ran the DNA fingerprinting. We thank A. Keyser and G. Hill for assistance in measuring reflectance of bunting plumage, and J. Elliott and B. Sinervo for assistance with the splines. We thank K. Bright, A. Chaine, K. Dial, D. Emlen, A. Greene, J. Jolivette, R. Hutto, S. Jones, R. Montgomerie, H. Powell, K. Short, B. Sinervo, B. Walker and K. Wasson for comments on the manuscript. We were assisted in the field by A. Agather, J. Carlson, W. Davison, R. Domenech, A. Edmonds, K. Grey, D. Gryskiewicz, J. Haskell, Q. Hodgson, K. Horst, K. Karwacky, L. Keeton, A.M. Lareau, J. Laws, J. Lee, L. Leroux, J. Lloyd, N. Marlenee, M. Miller, C. Minch, M. Miyai, A. Rapone, T. Redman, C. Richardson, J. Roach, J. Root, R. Sacco, R. Scholl, Y. Tamanda, A. Tomon, L. Whitney, B. Winter, K. Wood and J. York. This research was supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (to E.G.), Kananaskis Field Stations, University of Calgary (to B.E.L.), NSERC Collabourative Grant and NSERC Research Grants (to L.R. and P.T.B.), and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship, Queen's University School of Graduate Studies, American Museum of Natural History, Sigma Xi, Society of Canadian Ornithologists (to V.R.M.).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Erick Greene.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Greene, E., Lyon, B., Muehter, V. et al. Disruptive sexual selection for plumage coloration in a passerine bird . Nature 407, 1000–1003 (2000).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing