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A comparative study on the evolution of reversed size dimorphism in monogamous waders

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Sexual dimorphism in size is common in birds. Males are usually larger than females, although in some taxa reversed size dimorphism (RSD) predominates. Whilst direct dimorphism is attributed to sexual selection in males giving greater reproductive access to females, the evolutionary causes of RSD are still unclear. Four different hypotheses could explain the evolution of RSD in monogamous birds: (1) The ‘energy storing’ hypothesis suggests that larger females could accumulate more reserves at wintering or refuelling areas to enable an earlier start to egg laying. (2) According to the ‘incubation ability’ hypothesis, RSD has evolved because large females can incubate more efficiently than small ones. (3) The ‘parental role division’ hypothesis suggests that RSD in monogamous waders has evolved in species with parental role division and uniparental male care of the chicks. It is based on the assumption that small male size facilitates food acquisition in terrestrial habitats where chick rearing takes place and that larger females can accumulate more reserves for egg laying in coastal sites. (3) The ‘display agility’ hypothesis suggests that small males perform better in acrobatic displays presumably involved in mate choice and so RSD may have evolved due to female preference for agile males. I tested these hypotheses in monogamous waders using several comparative methods. Given the current knowledge of the phylogeny of this group, the evolutionary history of waders seems only compatible with the hypothesis that RSD has evolved as an adaptation for increasing display performance in males. In addition, the analysis of wing shape showed that males of species with acrobatic flight displays had wings with higher aspect ratio (wing span/2wing area) than non‐acrobatic species, which probably increases flight manoeuvrability during acrobatic displays. In species with acrobatic displays males also had a higher aspect ratio than females although no sexual difference was found in non‐acrobatic species. These results suggest that acrobatic flight displays could have produced changes in the morphology of some species and suggest the existence of selection favouring higher manoeuvrability in species with acrobatic flight displays. This supports the validity of the mechanisms proposed by the ‘display agility’ hypothesis to explain the evolution of RSD in waders.

Document Type: Original Article


Affiliations: Department de Biologia Animal (Vertebrats), Facultat de Biologia, Universitat de Barcelona, Avda. Diagonal 645, E-08028 Barcelona, Spain

Publication date: May 1, 1999


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