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Climate change upends selection on ornamentation in a wild bird


Secondary sexual traits have high heritabilities and are exposed to strong, environmentally sensitive selection, and so are expected to evolve rapidly in response to sustained environmental change. We examine the eco-evolutionary dynamics of ornament expression in a long-term study population of collared flycatchers, Ficedula albicollis, in which forehead patch size, which positively influences male reproductive success, declined markedly over 34 years. Annual fitness selection on forehead patch size switched from positive to negative during the study, a reversal that is accounted for by rising spring temperatures at the breeding site: highly ornamented males were selectively favoured following cold breeding seasons but selected against following warm breeding seasons. An ‘individual animal model’ describes a decline in the genetic values of breeding males during the study, which simulations showed was unlikely to result from drift alone. These results are thus consistent with adaptive evolution of a sexually selected trait in response to climate change.

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Figure 1: Male collared flycatcher with white forehead patch clearly displayed.
Figure 2: Annual estimates of phenotypic expression, selection and genetic value for forehead patch size (FPS) in a breeding population of male collared flycatchers.
Figure 3: Relationship between annual fitness selection gradients on forehead patch size (FPS) and spring (May–June) temperature at the breeding site the previous year.


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We are indebted to the numerous people who contributed to data collection during the study, J. Hadfield and E. McFarlane for assistance with analyses, and to T. Bonnet, E. Cole, E. Postma and B. Sheldon for discussion and advice. The long-term study was funded by a succession of grants from the Swedish Research Council; S.R.E. was funded by grants from the Swedish Research Council (to L.G.) and Zoologiska Stiftelsen.

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This study was conceived jointly by the authors. L.G. secured all funding for the fieldwork and was responsible for collating data. S.R.E. conducted all analyses and drafted the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon R. Evans.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Evans, S., Gustafsson, L. Climate change upends selection on ornamentation in a wild bird. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0039 (2017).

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