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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd Many species of birds show distinctive seasonal breeding and nonbreeding plumages. A number of hypotheses have been proposed for the evolution of this seasonal dichromatism, specifically related to the idea that birds may experience variable levels of sexual selection relative to natural selection throughout the year. However, these hypotheses have not addressed the selective forces that have shaped molt, the underlying mechanism of plumage change. Here, we examined relationships between life-history variation, the evolution of a seasonal molt, and seasonal plumage dichromatism in the New World warblers (Aves: Parulidae), a family with a remarkable diversity of plumage, molt, and life-history strategies. We used phylogenetic comparative methods and path analysis to understand how and why distinctive breeding and nonbreeding plumages evolve in this family. We found that color change alone poorly explains the evolution of patterns of biannual molt evolution in warblers. Instead, molt evolution is better explained by a combination of other life-history factors, especially migration distance and foraging stratum. We found that the evolution of biannual molt and seasonal dichromatism is decoupled, with a biannual molt appearing earlier on the tree, more dispersed across taxa and body regions, and correlating with separate life-history factors than seasonal dichromatism. This result helps explain the apparent paradox of birds that molt biannually but show breeding plumages that are identical to the nonbreeding plumage. We find support for a two-step process for the evolution of distinctive breeding and nonbreeding plumages: That prealternate molt evolves primarily under selection for feather renewal, with seasonal color change sometimes following later. These results reveal how life-history strategies and a birds' environment act upon multiple and separate feather functions to drive the evolution of feather replacement patterns and bird coloration.

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© 2020 The Authors. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

Ecology and Evolution

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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