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Study to determine if infidelity among birds an attempt to avoid inbreeding, diversify genes

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Humans do it. Birds do it. Cheat on their mates, that is.

Molecular studies of socially monogamous birds have shown that broods often contain offspring resulting from extra-pair matings by one of the parents tending the nest. But while human infidelity may be more for self-centered gratification, a cheating heart among birds tells a different story and may be for less egotistical reasons.

Research has indicated that reproductive success among birds and mammals is negatively related to genetic similarity of parents. As such, some species of birds are simply trying to avoid inbreeding and provide diversity to the genes they pass on to their offspring.

A collaborative study by a team of international biologists examines how the mating tactics of females of three species of socially monogamous shore birds -- western sandpipers, Kentish plovers and common sandpipers -- that are paired to genetically similar partners. Their findings appear in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Brett Sandercock, a Kansas State University assistant professor of avian ecology in the Division of Biology, and a member of the research team that conducted the study, said in recent years there has been a lot of interest in looking at the differences between social mating systems of birds and what scientist can learn by looking at the genetics of those social systems. Sandercock's contribution to the research included studying the social mating systems of sandpipers in western Alaska.

"There's been a revolution with new molecular methods of being able to ask some of these questions," Sandercock said. "A lot of this work has been done on songbirds and some really interesting observations made."

Partners in all three species, according to Sandercock, share responsibilities for incubation of the eggs. Males also tend to the brood after the eggs are hatched.

Sandercock said that while a high rate of extra-pair paterni
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Contact: Brett Sandercock
785-532-0120
Kansas State University
10-Oct-2002


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