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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.

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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.


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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.).

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Correspondence to Erick Greene.

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

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