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Proc Biol Sci. 2003 Jan 22;270(1511):167-71.

A female melanin ornament signals offspring fluctuating asymmetry in the barn owl.

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  • 1Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK.


Sexual selection theory predicts that males advertise quality by displaying extravagant ornaments. By contrast, whether phenotypic variation in females has a signalling function remains an open question. Here, to our knowledge, we provide the first evidence that a female plumage trait can signal fluctuating asymmetry in the offspring. We experimentally demonstrate in wild barn owls (Tyto alba) that the extent to which females display black spots on their plumage does not only signal offspring parasite resistance as shown in a previous study but also developmental homeostasis in the offspring. A greater number of spotted females produced offspring that had more symmetrical feathers during the period of growth. Males, that pair non-randomly with respect to female plumage spottiness therefore appear to gain substantial benefits by mating with heavily spotted females. Genetic variation in plumage spottiness is nevertheless maintained as the covariation between offspring body mass and mother plumage spottiness varies annually depending on environmental conditions.

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