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Genetics. 1995 Oct;141(2):657-65.

Heritability of nestling growth in cross-fostered European Starlings Sturnus vulgaris.

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Department of Animal Ecology, Lund University, Sweden.


In altricial birds, growth rates and nestling morphology vary between broods. For natural selection to produce evolutionary change in these variables, ther must exist heritable variation. Since nestling traits are not any longer presents in parents, traditional offspring-parent regressions cannot estimate heritabilities of these. In this study, a partial cross-fostering experiment was performed, where nestlings of the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) were reciprocally exchanged between nests. The experiment demonstrated a significant heritability of nestling tarsus length and body mass, but not of the growth trajectories followed by individual nestlings. the heritability estimate for tarsus length obtained in the cross-fostering experiment using full-sib analysis was lower than those obtained by offspring-parent regressions. This is likely due to a genotype-by-environment effect on tarsus length, with nestlings destined to become large but in poor condition having a low probability of appearing as parents. The main reason for the low heritability of growth was probably the large within-brood variation in growth pattern due to the initial size hierarchy of nestlings. Nestlings demonstrated targeted growth, where small-sized nestlings that initially grew slower than their siblings, managed to catch up.

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