No fitness benefits of early molt in a fairy-wren: relaxed sexual selection under genetic monogamy?

Marie Fan, Michelle L Hall, Sjouke A Kingma, Lisa M. Mandeltort, Nataly Hidalgo Aranzamendi, Kaspar Delhey, Anne Peters

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The evolution of male ornamentation has long been the focus of sexual selection studies. However, evidence is accumulating that sexually selected traits can also be lost, although the process is ill-understood. In male fairy-wrens (Malurus spp.), early molt into the seasonal breeding plumage is critical for obtaining extra-pair paternity (EPP), which reaches very high levels in these socially monogamous songbirds. A notable exception is the purple-crowned fairy-wren, Malurus coronatus, which, like its congeners, breeds cooperatively, but where EPP is very rare. Nevertheless, males develop a conspicuous seasonal breeding plumage at highly variable times. Based on 6 years of molt data collected for 137 individuals, we investigated the adaptive significance of pre-breeding molt timing as a sexual signal under (near) genetic monogamy. Molt timing varied between and within individuals with age and climate: molt was completed earlier in older males and after wetter years. Despite its potential to act as a sexual signal of male quality, fitness benefits and costs of early molt appear limited: molt timing did not correlate with 1) the likelihood of gaining a breeding position; 2) female mate preference (EPP/cuckoldry, divorce); 3) female reproductive investment (breeding timing, clutch size, number of clutches); 4) breeding performance (hatching success, fledging success, fledgling survival, annual reproductive success); and 5) male survival. However, although molt timing did not predict which subordinates would become breeders, breeders molted earlier than subordinates. The lack of EPP in this species might imply relaxed sexual selection on early molt with potential to lead to trait disappearance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1055–1067
Number of pages13
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • evolutionary trait loss
  • extra-pair paternity
  • monogamy
  • pre-breeding molt timing
  • relaxed sexual selection
  • seasonal breeding plumage

Cite this

Fan, M., Hall, M. L., Kingma, S. A., Mandeltort, L. M., Hidalgo Aranzamendi, N., Delhey, K., & Peters, A. (2017). No fitness benefits of early molt in a fairy-wren: relaxed sexual selection under genetic monogamy? Behavioral Ecology, 28(4), 1055–1067.