Scrutinizing assortative mating in birds

Daiping Wang, Wolfgang Forstmeier, Mihai Valcu, Niels J. Dingemanse, Martin Bulla, Christiaan Both, Renée A. Duckworth, Lynna Marie Kiere, Patrik Karell, Tomáš Albrecht, Bart Kempenaers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


It is often claimed that pair bonds preferentially form between individuals that resemble one another. Such assortative mating appears to be widespread throughout the animal kingdom. Yet it is unclear whether the apparent ubiquity of assortative mating arises primarily from mate choice (“like attracts like”), which can be constrained by same-sex competition for mates; from spatial or temporal separation; or from observer, reporting, publication, or search bias. Here, based on a conventional literature search, we find compelling meta-analytical evidence for size-assortative mating in birds (r = 0.178, 95% CI 0.142–0.215, 83 species, 35,591 pairs). However, our analyses reveal that this effect vanishes gradually with increased control of confounding factors. Specifically, the effect size decreased by 42% when we used previously unpublished data from nine long-term field studies, i.e., data free of reporting and publication bias (r = 0.103, 95% CI 0.074–0.132, eight species, 16,611 pairs). Moreover, in those data, assortative mating effectively disappeared when both partners were measured by independent observers or separately in space and time (mean r = 0.018, 95% CI −0.016–0.057). Likewise, we also found no evidence for assortative mating in a direct experimental test for mutual mate choice in captive populations of Zebra finches (r = −0.020, 95% CI −0.148–0.107, 1,414 pairs). These results highlight the importance of unpublished data in generating unbiased meta-analytical conclusions and suggest that the apparent ubiquity of assortative mating reported in the literature is overestimated and may not be driven by mate choice or mating competition for preferred mates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3000156
JournalPLoS biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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