School of BioSciences - Theses

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    The function of female and male ornaments in the lovely fairy-wren
    Leitao, Ana V. ( 2019)
    Ornaments like plumage colours or complex song are generally regarded as male traits that are shaped by sexual selection. By contrast, the factors that shape female elaborate traits have often been overlooked, though they are expressed in females across many taxa. Understanding how trade-offs and selective pressures shape female ornamentation is crucial for advancing our understanding of trait evolution. In this thesis, I investigate the form and function of female and male plumage colour and song in the Lovely fairy-wren (Malurus amabilis), a tropical species in which females and males are both highly colourful and vocal. This was investigated over three consecutive years and field seasons in Far North Queensland, Australia. My thesis research employed field observations, behavioural experiments, and genetic analysis, to test the adaptive function(s) and mechanisms for the evolution of female and male ornamental traits. I explicitly contrast females and males so that we can address, in the light of the abundant work done on males, how females may or may not differ from males. To provide context for the ornamental traits that are exhibited by this species, I first provide a comprehensive overview of the ecology and breeding biology of the Lovely fairy-wren, since a detailed description on the species natural history prior to this work was lacking. To understand the function of plumage colouration, I studied whether plumage colour in females and males is a signal and experimentally tested if it functions in a competitive context. Additionally, I assessed whether plumage colour is sexually selected, by examining its signalling content, costs (survival), and its relationship with reproductive and paternity success. Lastly, I investigated the song function, by describing female and male song structure and examining sex-specific variation in song rate across different contexts. I also used experimental data to examine female and male responses to simulated territorial intrusion. Overall this thesis provides insight into the form and function of both female and male plumage colours and song. First, it shows that visual and acoustic ornaments are important signalling components in different contexts, suggesting that female ornaments are not just a correlated genetic by-product of traits in males, and that selection favours female (and male) expression of traits. Second, the information conveyed by plumage colouration seems to be context-dependent in relation to the sex of the bearer: in males, it may follow the classical pattern of sexual selection, functioning in mate choice and male-male competition, while in females, plumage colours do not seem to be influenced by male choice, but function in same-sex competitive contexts. Third, it highlights that song has convergent functions in both sexes, as females and males have similar song structure and used song year-round in identical contexts for within-pair communication and joint territorial defence. The fact that females and males sing and have bright colours year-round in parallel with their territorial and breeding behaviour, suggests that individuals use their traits to maintain (sexual and non-sexual) resources. This work highlights the importance of studying and considering the fundamental differences in females and males, a necessary step for a realistic understanding of ornament expression, and contributes to the ongoing discussion on the evolution of elaborate female signal traits.