Context-dependent sexual advertisement: Plasticity in development of sexual ornamentation throughout the lifetime of a passerine bird

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Male investment into sexual ornamentation is a reproductive decision that depends on the context of breeding and life history state. In turn, selection for state- and context-specific expression of sexual ornamentation should favour the evolution of developmental pathways that enable the flexible allocation of resources into sexual ornamentation. We studied lifelong variation in the expression and condition-dependence of a sexual ornament in relation to age and the context of breeding in male house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) - a species that develops a new sexual ornament once a year after breeding. Throughout males' lifetime, the elaboration of ornamentation and the allocation of resources to the development of sexual ornamentation depended strongly on pairing status in the preceding breeding season - males that were single invested more resources into sexual ornamentation and changed ornamentation more than males that were paired. During the initial (post-juvenile) moult, the expression of ornamentation was closely dependent on individual condition, however the condition-dependence of ornamentation sharply decreased throughout a male's lifetime and in older males expression of sexual ornamentation was largely independent of condition during moult. Selection for early breeding favoured greater ornamentation in males that were single in the preceding seasons and the strength of this selection increased with age. On the contrary, the strength of selection on sexual ornamentation decreased with age in males that were paired in the preceding breeding season. Our results reveal strong context-dependency in investment into sexual ornamentation as well as a high flexibility in the development of sexual ornamentation throughout a male's life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1065-1076
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2003


  • Age
  • Condition-dependence
  • Development
  • Life history
  • Plasticity
  • Sexual ornaments
  • Sexual selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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