Ultraviolet colour variation influences blue tit sex ratios

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Brilliant blue and violet structural colours are common plumage ornaments in birds, but their signalling functions are poorly understood1. This may be because birds also communicate in ultraviolet (UV-A) wavelengths (320–400 nm)2,3,4,5, invisible to humans, but a strong spectral component of many structural colours6. From a wild population of blue tits—Parus caeruleus, sexually dimorphic primarily in the ultraviolet7,8—we report experimental evidence that females skew the sex ratio of their offspring in response to the ultraviolet plumage ornamentation of their mates. Masking male ultraviolet reflectance reversed a positive correlation between reflectance and brood sex ratio observed in control pairs, demonstrating a causal effect of male ultraviolet ornamentation on offspring sex ratio. Ultraviolet reflectance also predicted male survival to the following breeding season, suggesting that it serves as a viability indicator. When taken together with ecological effects (laying date, nesting area), our experiments reveal that an unexpected amount of control exists over the primary sex ratio in birds, suggesting that chromosomal sex determination may not constrain the sex ratios of multiparous vertebrates.

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Figure 1: Natural variation and experimental effects on reflectance of blue tit crown plumage.
Figure 2: Relationships between spectral reflectance parameters and deviation from expected sex ratio (proportion males).
Figure 3: Associations between survival of male blue tits and UV colouration and sex ratio.


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We thank A. Dubiec, K. Oddie, U. Unger and M. Liungman for assistance, and M. Andersson, A. Bennett, N. Burley, I. Cuthill, K. Lessells, J. Merilä, S. Verhulst and M. Zuk for comments. This work was supported by the Swedish Natural Sciences Research Council (B.C.S. and S.A.), and a scholarship from the Swedish Institute (J.S.).

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Correspondence to Ben C. Sheldon.

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Sheldon, B., Andersson, S., Griffith, S. et al. Ultraviolet colour variation influences blue tit sex ratios. Nature 402, 874–877 (1999) doi:10.1038/47239

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