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Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Oct 7;272(1576):2037-43.

Parasites affect song complexity and neural development in a songbird.

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  • 1School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UG, UK.


There is now considerable evidence that female choice drives the evolution of song complexity in many songbird species. However, the underlying basis for such choice remains controversial. The developmental stress hypothesis suggests that early developmental conditions can mediate adult song complexity by perturbing investment in the underlying brain nuclei during their initial growth. Here, we show that adult male canaries (Serinus canaria), infected with malaria (Plasmodium relictum) as juveniles, develop simpler songs as adults compared to uninfected individuals, and exhibit reduced development of the high vocal centre (HVC) song nucleus in the brain. Our results show how developmental stress not only affects the expression of a sexually selected male trait, but also the structure of the underlying song control pathway in the brain, providing a direct link between brain and behaviour. This novel experimental evidence tests both proximate and ultimate reasons for the evolution of complex songs and supports the Hamilton-Zuk hypothesis of parasite-mediated sexual selection. Together, these results propose how developmental costs may help to explain the evolution of honest advertising in the complex songs of birds.

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