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Curr Biol. 2009 May 12;19(9):792-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.068. Epub 2009 Apr 30.

Maternal effects contribute to the superior performance of extra-pair offspring.

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  • 1Animal Ecology Group, Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies, University of Groningen, P.O. Box 14, 9750 AA Haren, The Netherlands.


The explanation for extra-pair mating in female birds remains poorly understood and contentious [1-7]. Several leading hypotheses propose that females benefit indirectly by enhancing the genetic quality of their offspring, through good genes or genetic compatibility effects [1, 8, 9]. Supporting this idea, recent studies have identified a range of fitness-related traits for which extra-pair offspring (EPO) are superior to their within-pair (WP) half-siblings [10-21]. However, such performance differences may result from nongenetic maternal effects if EPO are positioned earlier in the laying order and benefit from the advantages of earlier hatching [22, 23]. Here we show that EPO are larger, heavier, and more likely to fledge than their WP half-siblings in a population of blue tits, Cyanistes caeruleus. However, extra-pair paternity declined markedly with laying order, resulting in EPO generally hatching earlier. After correcting for variation in hatch time, none of the observed disparities between EPO and their WP half-siblings remained significant. These findings indicate that phenotypic comparisons between maternal half-siblings must consider potential hatching-order effects and suggest that the evidence for genetic benefits from extra-pair copulation may be less compelling than currently accepted. Moreover, the overrepresentation of EPO early in the laying order may help explain female extra-pair mating.

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