Evolution of breeding plumages in birds: A multiple-step pathway to seasonal dichromatism in New World warblers (Aves: Parulidae)

Authors: Ryan S. Terrill, Glenn F. Seeholzer1, Jared D. Wolfe

Year: 2020

Publication: Ecology and Evolution

Publication Link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.6606

Keywords: feathers, phylogenetic comparative methods, selection, trait evolution

Abstract: Many species of birds show distinctive seasonal breeding and nonbreeding plumages. A number of hypotheses have been proposed for the evolution of this seasonal dichromatism, specifically related to the idea that birds may experience variable levels of sexual selection relative to natural selection throughout the year. However, these hypotheses have not addressed the selective forces that have shaped molt, the underlying mechanism of plumage change. Here, we examined relationships between life-history variation, the evolution of a seasonal molt, and seasonal plumage dichromatism
in the New World warblers (Aves: Parulidae), a family with a remarkable diversity of plumage, molt, and life-history strategies. We used phylogenetic comparative methods and path analysis to understand how and why distinctive breeding and nonbreeding plumages evolve in this family. We found that color change alone poorly explains the evolution of patterns of biannual molt evolution in warblers. Instead, molt evolution is better explained by a combination of other life-history factors, especially migration distance and foraging stratum. We found that the evolution of biannual molt and seasonal dichromatism is decoupled, with a biannual molt appearing earlier on the tree, more dispersed across taxa and body regions, and correlating with
separate life-history factors than seasonal dichromatism. This result helps explain the apparent paradox of birds that molt biannually but show breeding plumages that are identical to the nonbreeding plumage. We find support for a two-step process for the evolution of distinctive breeding and nonbreeding plumages: That prealternate molt evolves primarily under selection for feather renewal, with seasonal color change sometimes following later. These results reveal how life-history strategies and a birds’ environment act upon multiple and separate feather functions to drive the evolution of feather replacement patterns and bird coloration.

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