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Picking the best parent for your chicks

The local boy with the most bling is a good choice in the spring, but as summer progresses a girl bird's best bet is a stranger.

Who's chosen by whom in the mating game is determined by seasonal changes in the genetic diversity of available mates, according to new research based on a 10-year study of wild finches.

The finding helps explain a long-standing evolutionary biology paradox.

Previous research has shown that female birds often go for the flashier guys. Many biologists argue that sexual selection -- competition for mates -- is the driving force behind the evolution of such elaborate and seemingly useless getups as a male peacock's tail.

"For such elaborate traits to evolve, you have to have mating patterns where everyone wants the same thing," said lead researcher Kevin P. Oh of The University of Arizona in Tucson.

But if everyone mates with the same perfect-looking individual, ultimately that would result in inbreeding, he said.

Particularly healthy kids are produced when the parents are genetically different -- what biologists call complementarity. However, choosing one's genetic better half would generate more diversity in looks, rather than pushing the population toward a uniform dandified appearance.

Alexander V. Badyaev, principal investigator for the UA study, said, "Even though preference for genetically complementary mates is widely documented, it's always puzzled people that individual differences in mate preference do not prevent the evolution of elaborate ornaments."

It all comes down to who's available when a bird is ready to breed, said Oh and Badyaev. Early on, the available mates aren't genetically diverse but some males are very flashy. Later in the season, females who arrive from out of town may not find a flashy male, but can end up with a stranger with genes different from her own.

The whole system is driven by the fact that female birds generally leave home to breed,
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Contact: Mari N. Jensen
mnjensen@email.arizona.edu
520-626-9635
University of Arizona
18-Apr-2006


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