Shake your tail feather: Sexual signaling in birds

Sep 20, 2010
Shake your tail feather: Sexual signaling in birds
Zebra Finch, Image by Thanh-Lan Gluckman

(PhysOrg.com) -- Patterned feathers, previously thought to be used only for camouflage in birds, can play an important role in attracting a mate and fending off rivals, a University of Melbourne study reveals.

Ms. Thanh-Lan Gluckman, co-author of the paper and Masters of Philosophy student from the Department of Zoology at the University of Melbourne, said this finding brought a new perspective to research in animal communication and evolution.

“The implication of this study is that feathers don’t need to be bright and showy to be used in sexual signalling and hence this changes our understanding of animal communication,” she said.

Hundreds of bird species such as Zebra and Cuckoos have “barred” patterns on their feathers, which are made up of horizontal bars alternating dark and light pigmentation side by side.

“Since Darwin wrote of visual communication in birds, we have known that bright colored feathers play a role in sexual signalling, for example to attract females. But the role of barred patterns as a communication signal has largely been overlooked,” Ms. Gluckman said.

The study was a large-scale comparison of plumage of around 8900 bird species worldwide (90% of all ), and was conducted with former University of Melbourne lecturer Dr. Gonçalo Cardoso, now at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO), Portugal.

This photo shows exquisitely fine barred plumage in a male zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). The Zebra Finch is just one of many species where barred plumage appears at sexual maturity and only in males, indicating it that barred patterns can function in sexual signaling in birds. Credit: Ms. Thanh-Lan Gluckman, University of Melbourne

The researchers compared barred plumage and other patterns on the body of males, females, and juvenile birds, to assess what they might be used for.

While the researchers found evidence that barred plumage is predominantly used as camouflage, they also found that barred plumage was much more likely to appear only in males, or only at sexual maturity, compared to other patterns.

“Furthermore, we found these differences on the front of the birds, which is an important area for communication during face-to-face interactions, not on their back, which is more useful for camouflage when running away or hiding from predators,” she said.

“This is an exciting finding showing an elegant evolutionary solution to the needs of to camouflage as well as to signal to a potential mate or rival.”

The study has been published in the prestigious Journal of Evolutionary Biology.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Related Stories

Some birds may use their feathers to touch

Feb 15, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new study of auklets suggests the birds use their ornamental feathers in much the same way as cats use their whiskers: to feel their surroundings.

Plumage-color traits more extreme over time

May 03, 2010

Ever since Darwin, researchers have tried to explain the enormous diversity of plumage colour traits in birds. Now researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, are adding something new to this particular ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

4 hours ago

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

22 hours ago

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JamesThomas
not rated yet Sep 20, 2010
Birds aren't the only ones. The older I get, the more bars, lines, bags and spots I get on my face. Yet, I don't have any females knocking down my door.

I guess I'm using it mainly for camouflage.

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Researchers develop new model of cellular movement

(Phys.org) —Cell movement plays an important role in a host of biological functions from embryonic development to repairing wounded tissue. It also enables cancer cells to break free from their sites of ...

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Under some LED bulbs whites aren't 'whiter than white'

For years, companies have been adding whiteners to laundry detergent, paints, plastics, paper and fabrics to make whites look "whiter than white," but now, with a switch away from incandescent and fluorescent lighting, different ...