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PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e32311. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032311. Epub 2012 Feb 16.

Fluctuating environments, sexual selection and the evolution of flexible mate choice in birds.

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National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Durham, North Carolina, United States of America.


Environmentally-induced fluctuation in the form and strength of natural selection can drive the evolution of morphology, physiology, and behavior. Here we test the idea that fluctuating climatic conditions may also influence the process of sexual selection by inducing unexpected reversals in the relative quality or sexual attractiveness of potential breeding partners. Although this phenomenon, known as 'ecological cross-over', has been documented in a variety of species, it remains unclear the extent to which it has driven the evolution of major interspecific differences in reproductive behavior. We show that after controlling for potentially influential life history and demographic variables, there are significant positive associations between the variability and predictability of annual climatic cycles and the prevalence of infidelity and divorce within populations of a taxonomically diverse array of socially monogamous birds. Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that environmental factors have shaped the evolution of reproductive flexibility and suggest that in the absence of severe time constraints, secondary mate choice behaviors can help prevent, correct, or minimize the negative consequences of ecological cross-overs. Our findings also illustrate how a basic evolutionary process like sexual selection is susceptible to the increasing variability and unpredictability of climatic conditions that is resulting from climate change.

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