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Naturwissenschaften. 2003 Oct;90(10):464-7. Epub 2003 Aug 27.

Assortative mating by carotenoid-based plumage colour: a quality indicator in American goldfinches, Carduelis tristis.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, K7L 3N6, Canada.


We investigated the mating patterns in 22 breeding pairs of wild American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) with respect to their body size, condition, and carotenoid-based, yellow plumage colour. Using reflectance spectrometry, we objectively quantified plumage colours across the bird-visible wavelengths, revealing a unexpected UV peak in the reflectance spectrum from yellow feathers. We summarized our colour measurements using a principal components analysis to create a single variable, carotenoid PC1, that represents the intensity of this carotenoid-based yellow colour, a measure of phenotypic quality in this species. We found no evidence of assortative mating with respect to measures of body size or condition but there was positive assortative mating by carotenoid PC1, such that the yellow plumage colours of males and females were significantly correlated within pairs. We argue that the yellow carotenoid coloration of goldfinches may be important in mutual mate choice and, thus, that sexual selection in this species may act upon female ornamentation, as well as the more obvious plumage signals of males. Because assortative mating results in an increase in genetic variance, we suggest that this might be a mechanism that maintains variance in ornamental traits in spite of the variance-eroding effects of sexual selection.

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