Evolutionary dynamics of sexual traits: demographic, genetic, and behavioral contingencies

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


The evolution of adaptation depends on genetic and phenotypic variation, both of which are expected to be depleted in populations as a result of selection. Thus, understanding the maintenance of variation in fitness-related traits is of central importance in evolutionary biology as such processes can mitigate the constraining effects of adaptation on evolutionary change. Secondary sexual traits involved in attracting mates offer conspicuous examples of adaptation and are suggestive of strong directional selection, yet abundant variation is commonly observed both within and among populations. One explanation posits that variation in elaborate sexual traits might be maintained by fluctuating selection, such that episodes of intense selection are interspersed by periods in which variation is shielded from elimination, yet little is known about the processes that lead to such heterogeneity. In many cases, mate choice results from highly localized social interactions such that fine scale demographic variation may contribute to variation in patterns of sexual selection, especially when individuals’ attractiveness is assessed in comparison to local conspecifics. Additionally, selection on sexual traits might fluctuate when the fitness consequences of mate choice depends on the complementarity of male and female characters, such as when offspring viability is influenced by the genetic relatedness of parents. In this dissertation, I examined demographic, behavioral, and genetic causes of variation in sexually-selected male plumage ornaments in a wild population of house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus). Over a five-year field study, I found that mate choice occurred largely within small social groups, the composition of which was influenced by active social sampling by males, suggesting that variation in male sexual traits may be maintained as a result of behaviors that enable individuals to shape their environment of selection. Additionally, using a panel of neutral molecular markers, I found that parental relatedness predicted multiple metrics of offspring fitness, and also affected the ability of neonates to buffer development from environmental variation, suggesting that inbreeding is likely to have pervasive effects on the evolution of adaptation. Taken together, these studies provide evidence of distinct processes that contribute to the maintenance of quantitative variation in sexual traits in this natural population.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Arizona
  • Badyaev, Alexander V., Supervisor, External person
Award date8 Apr 2009
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


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