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Sexual selection alters dance moves of birds during courtship display

11.05.2023: All dressed up and a god on the dance floor – in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta made an impression both on the big screen and with the audience. Birds do it in a similar way, combining an attractive plumage with an acrobatic performance. The evolution of avian courtship displays was the focus of an international study conducted with the participation of researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna using manakins, a group of birds found throughout the American tropics.

For their study, the researchers compared the elaborate courtship behaviour of two closely related species, golden-collared manakins (Manacus vitellinus) and white-collared manakins (Manacus candei), and their hybrids, focusing on a small island population of hybrids off the coast of Panama.

Courtship dance beats genetic similarity

The study confirmed that the island birds were genetically similar to the mainland hybrids, which in turn were more similar genetically to the white-collared manakin parental species. The research team then analysed the courtship dance, which is performed within an area demarcated by small saplings, which the courtship male cleans before his courtship dance (jump-snap routine).

The researchers were surprised to find that hybrid males, despite their genetic similarity to white-collared manakins, performed key dance manoeuvres like golden-collared manakins. Other elements of the hybrids’ dance performance either did not differ from that of the white-collared parents or was a mix of the courtship dance of both parental species.

Courtship dance: 

Modular evolution in response to sexual selection

But why does the courtship dance of hybrid males resemble that of golden-collared manakins when the genetic background of the hybrids is more consistent with white-collared manakins? The researchers suspect that selected components of the dance routines of golden-collared manakins have been adopted by white-collared manakins through sexual selection.

Leonida Fusani, the study’s last author and head of the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at Vetmeduni Vienna, explains this process in evolutionary terms: “We hypothesise that such modular evolution occurs in response to sexual selection, whereby specific components of the bird’s dance routine shift to yield a broader change in its functional appearance.”

Video: Courtship dance of hybrid males;

Hybrids help to better understand evolution of sexual traits

A major goal of evolutionary biology is to understand how sexual traits arise and diversify among populations. One way to achieve this goal is to study sexual traits in closely related species and their hybrids. The present study, which was recently published in the journal Animal Behaviour, used this approach to investigate the evolution of elaborate behavioural display characteristics used during courtship by birds.

The article “Beyond plumage: acrobatic courtship displays show intermediate patterns in manakin hybrids” by Julia Barske, Matthew J. Fuxjager, Claudio Ciofi, Chiara Natali, Barney A. Schlinger, Tim Billo and Leonida Fusani was published in Animal Behaviour.

Scientific article