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Natural selection and age-related variation in morphology of a colonial bird

Mary Bomberger Brown, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In May 1996, inclement weather led to the deaths of thousands of Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in Nebraska. Survivors had larger skeletons, shorter wings and tails, and less wing asymmetry than non-survivors. This population was followed for 10 years to study 1) whether natural selection events result in permanent microevolutionary changes, 2) if variation in climate affects the development of morphological traits, and 3) if morphological traits vary systematically with age. Patterns in morphology exhibited by swallows following the selection event were studied by measuring yearling birds. Wing and middle tail lengths decreased, beak length and width increased, tarsus length was unchanged, and the amount of wing asymmetry increased. The cumulative directional change in wing, tail, and beak length was greater after the selection event than during the event. This variation was not explained by phenotypic plasticity resulting from better environmental conditions, because conditions were not significantly different before and after the event. There was no evidence opposing selection restored skeletal size or wing or tail length to that before the selection event. This continued change in morphology may represent the population shifting to a different fitness peak in the adaptive landscape. The way variation in climatic conditions (and food resources) affects the morphological development of juvenile swallows was studied. In cooler years birds allocated less growth to wings and tails than they did in warmer years, while maintaining normal levels of skeletal growth and body mass. Changes in juvenile feather growth in response to rearing conditions persisted into the first breeding season. The extent morphological traits vary with age across a bird's lifetime was examined. Juveniles had shorter wings and tails, lower body mass, smaller skeletal size and lower levels of fluctuating asymmetry than adults. Among adult age classes, wing and tail length increased with age and wing and tail fluctuating asymmetry decreased with age. There was no evidence for degenerative senescence in swallows, as the decline in fluctuating asymmetry suggests the oldest birds maintain high levels of phenotypic performance. This age-related variation in morphology suggests that age should be considered in future analyses of morphological variation in passerines.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Brown, Mary Bomberger, "Natural selection and age-related variation in morphology of a colonial bird" (2011). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3449889.