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The niche variation hypothesis and the evolution of colour polymorphism in birds: a comparative study of owls, nightjars and raptors

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We studied the evolution of colour polymorphism in diurnal raptors, owls and nightjars, the avian taxa in which this trait is most widespread, in relation to species ecological niche width and diet. Two main mechanisms have been put forward to explain the maintenance of polymorphism, namely apostatic selection and disruptive selection. The niche variation hypothesis states that species with broader ecological niches should be more variable compared with those with narrow niches because of the action of disruptive selection; the apostatic selection hypothesis conversely suggests that intraspecific colour variation should be promoted in predators by prey forming an avoidance image for the more common colour morph. Our aim was to determine if colour polymorphism occurrence was associated with broad ecological niches as predicted by the niche variation hypothesis, or with predation on intelligent and sharp-sighted prey as predicted by the avoidance image hypothesis. Pairwise comparisons were made between pairs of closely related species differing in variables expected to influence the occurrence of polymorphism. We found that polymorphic species of all three groups showed wider and more continuous distribution ranges, frequented many different habitats, both open and closed, and lived in seasonally alternating dry/wet climates. Polymorphic species were more migratory compared with monomorphic ones, and they showed an activity pattern covering both day and night. Conversely, colour polymorphism was not higher in species preying on birds and mammals. All these findings support the hypothesis that colour polymorphism evolved in bird species with wider niche breadth and not in species preying on intelligent prey. Therefore, we propose that disruptive selection may be the main mechanism maintaining colour polymorphism in these bird groups by favouring different morphs in different environmental conditions. ¬© 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 82, 237–248.
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Keywords: apostatic selection; comparative method; disruptive selection; morphs; niche width; plumage colour; speciation

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Laboratorio di Eco-Etologia, Dipartimento di Biologia Animale, Università di Pavia, P.zza Botta 9, 27100 Pavia, Italy

Publication date: 2004-06-01

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