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Ecol Evol. 2013 Feb;3(2):389-98. doi: 10.1002/ece3.474. Epub 2013 Jan 11.

Seasonal dimorphism in the horny bills of sparrows.

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Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute National Zoological Park, Washington, District of Columbia, 20008.


Bill size is often viewed as a species-specific adaptation for feeding, but it sometimes varies between sexes, suggesting that sexual selection or intersexual competition may also be important. Hypotheses to explain sexual dimorphism in avian bill size include divergence in feeding niche or thermoregulatory demands, intrasexual selection based on increased competition among males, or female preference. Birds also show seasonal changes in bill size due to shifts in the balance between growth rate and wear, which may be due to diet or endogenous rhythms in growth. Insight into the function of dimorphism can be gained using the novel approach of digital x-ray imaging of museum skins to examine the degree to which the skeletal core or the rhamphotheca contribute to overall dimorphism. The rhamphotheca is ever-growing and ever-wearing, varying in size throughout life; whereas the skeletal core shows determinant growth. Because tidal marsh sparrows are more dimorphic in bill size than related taxa, we selected two marsh taxa to investigate dimorphism and seasonality in the size of the overall bill, the skeletal core, and the rhamphotheca. Bill size varied by sex and season, with males having larger bills than females, and bill size increasing from nonbreeding to breeding season more in males. Skeletal bill size varied with season, but not sex. The rhamphotheca varied primarily with sex; males had a larger rhamphotheca (corrected for skeletal bill size), which showed a greater seasonal increase than females. The rhamphotheca, rather than the skeletal bill, was responsible for sexual dimorphism in overall bill size, which was particularly well developed in the breeding season. The size of the rhamphotheca may be a condition-based character that is shaped by sexual selection. These results are consistent with the evidence that bill size is influenced by sexual selection as well as trophic ecology.


Bill size; bird beaks; emberizidae; rhamphotheca; salt marsh birds; sexual selection; tidal marsh birds

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