Context-dependent development of sexual ornamentation: Implications for a trade-off between current and future breeding efforts

A. V. Badyaev, C. M. Vleck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Allocation of resources into the development of sexual displays is determined by a trade-off between the competing demands of current reproduction and self-maintenance. When reproduction overlaps with acquisition of sexual ornamentation, such as in birds with a yearly post-breeding moult, such a trade-off can be expressed in elaboration of sexual traits used in subsequent matings. In turn, selection for elaboration of sexual ornaments should favour resolution of this trade-off through a modification of the ornaments' development, resulting in variable and life history-dependent development of sexual displays. Here we examined a novel hypothesis that the trade-off between current reproduction and development of sexual ornamentation in the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) can be mediated by the shared effects of prolactin - a pituitary hormone that regulates both parental care and moult in this species. We compared developmental variation in sexual ornamentation between breeding, nonbreeding, and juvenile males and examined the relative contribution of residual levels of prolactin and individual condition during moult to the acquisition of sexual ornamentation. Males that invested heavily in parental care entered post-breeding moult in lower condition and later in the season, but their higher plasma prolactin was associated with shorter and more intense moult ultimately resulting in equal or greater elaboration of sexual ornamentation compared with nonparental males. Elaboration of sexual ornamentation of nonparental males that entered moult in greater condition, but with lower prolactin, was produced by longer and earlier moult and by lesser overlap in moult between sexual ornaments. Ornamentation of juvenile males that acquire sexual ornamentation for the first time was closely associated with physiological condition during moult. We discuss the implications of such context-dependent ontogenies of sexual ornamentation and resulting differences in condition-dependence of sexual traits across life history stages on the evolution of female preference for elaborated sexual displays.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1277-1287
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2007


  • Life history
  • Moult
  • Parental care
  • Prolactin
  • Sexual ornament development
  • Sexual selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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