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Extra-pair paternity, testes size and testosterone level in relation to colour polymorphism in the barn owl Tyto alba

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Abstract

In many bird populations, individuals display one of several genetically inherited colour morphs. Colour polymorphism can be maintained by several mechanisms one of which being frequency-dependent selection with colour morphs signalling alternative mating strategies. One morph may be dominant and territorial, and another one adopt a sneaky behaviour to gain access to fertile females. We tested this hypothesis in the barn owl Tyto alba in which coloration varies from reddish-brown to white. This trait is heritable and neither sensitive to the environment in which individuals live nor to body condition. In Switzerland, reddish-brown males were observed to feed their brood at a higher rate and to produce more offspring than white males. This observation lead us to hypothesize that white males may equalise fitness by investing more effort in extra-pair copulations. This hypothesis predicts that lighter coloured males produce more extra-pair young, have larger testes and higher levels of circulating testosterone. However, our results are not consistent with these three predictions. First, paternity analyses of 54 broods with a total of 211 offspring revealed that only one young was not sired by the male that was feeding it. Second, testes size was not correlated with male plumage coloration suggesting that white males are not sexually more active. Finally, in nestlings at the time of feather growth testosterone level was not related to plumage coloration suggesting that this androgen is not required for the expression of this plumage trait. Our study therefore indicates that in the barn owl colour polymorphism plays no role in the probability of producing extra-pair young.

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