Quantifying variability of avian colours: Are signalling traits more variable?

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Abstract

Background: Increased variability in sexually selected ornaments, a key assumption of evolutionary theory, is thought to be maintained through condition-dependence. Condition-dependent handicap models of sexual selection predict that (a) sexually selected traits show amplified variability compared to equivalent non-sexually selected traits, and since males are usually the sexually selected sex, that (b) males are more variable than females, and (c) sexually dimorphic traits more variable than monomorphic ones. So far these predictions have only been tested for metric traits. Surprisingly, they have not been examined for bright coloration, one of the most prominent sexual traits. This omission stems from computational difficulties: different types of colours are quantified on different scales precluding the use of coefficients of variation. Methodology/Principal Findings: Based on physiological models of avian colour vision we develop an index to quantify the degree of discriminable colour variation as it can be perceived by conspecifics. A comparison of variability in ornamental and non-ornamental colours in six bird species confirmed (a) that those coloured patches that are sexually selected or act as indicators of quality show increased chromatic variability. However, we found no support for (b) that males generally show higher levels of variability than females, or (c) that sexual dichromatism per se is associated with increased variability. Conclusions/Significance: We show that it is currently possible to realistically estimate variability of animal colours as perceived by them, something difficult to achieve with other traits. Increased variability of known sexually-selected/quality-indicating colours in the studied species, provides support to the predictions borne from sexual selection theory but the lack of increased overall variability in males or dimorphic colours in general indicates that sexual differences might not always be shaped by similar selective forces. Copyright: © 2008 Delhey, Peters.

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Delhey, K., & Peters, A. (2008). Quantifying variability of avian colours: Are signalling traits more variable? PLoS ONE, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001689

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