Sexual Selection Strategy of Northeastern Chinese Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica)
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Sexual selection can be defined as the difference in reproductive success among individuals that is related to their ability to acquire mates and fertilizations. Mathematical models have shown that combined with natural selection, sexual selection can be an important driver for speciation. There have also been a few case studies showing that sexual selection alone can lead to speciation in nature. Over the past 30 years, the barn swallow has become a classic model animal for sexual selection. The barn swallow has at least two sexually selected traits in different subspecies: the length of tail streamers in European barn swallows, H. r. rustica and ventral plumage colour in north American barn swallows, H. r. erythrogaster. Meanwhile molecular research on barn swallows shows that these barn swallow subspecies are recently derived and thus the barn swallow becomes an ideal model animal to test the theory that sexual selection drives speciation. The Barn Swallow species complex is comprised of six closely related subspecies distributed throughout the Holarctic. Whereas experimental studies in Europe, the Middle East and North America have been conducted, little is known about populations distributed across Asia. During my PhD study I collected barn swallow samples from more than 20 locations across China and compared the difference in morphology of Chinese barn swallow populations. The results show that in the northeastern part of China the barn swallow is intermediate in phenotype between subspecies in North America (H. r. erythrogaster) and subspecies in Europe (H. r. rustica), and is characterized by rusty ventral plumage colour and medium length tail streamers. Using morphological and colour traits, northeastern Chinese swallow populations can be separated from other Chinese populations, and this pattern of phenotypic variation may form under both natural and sexual selection. I also conducted an observational and experimental study on one of these populations, aiming to determine the extent to which variation in plumage color and tail streamers is underlain by sexual selection. The observational study reveals that for male barn swallows in my study population, clutch initiation date, the number of both social and genetic offspring and the body condition of nestlings can be predicted by the colouration of their ventral plumage, while the experiment shows that the reproductive success of male barn swallows tended to increase with experimental enhancement on their plumage colouration. My research supports that the ventral plumage colour is the sexually selected trait in northeastern Chinese barn swallows, and further experiments are needed to clarify the effect of male ventral plumage colour manipulation on their breeding success with the limitation of small sample size in my study.
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