Experimental evidence for female choice and energetic costs of male tail elongation in red-collared widowbirds

Sarah R. Pryke*, Staffan Andersson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

36 Citations (Scopus)


The black nuptial plumage of the highly polygynous male red-collared widowbird (Euplectes ardens) comprises a red carotenoid-based collar patch and a long graduated tail (c. 22 cm). Tail length was the strongest predictor of male mating success in a previous selection analysis, motivating this experimental test of the relative importance of tail plumes in male contest competition and female choice. Males were assigned to either a short (12.5 cm) or control (20 cm) tail manipulation prior to territory establishment. Male contest competition was unaffected by the tail treatments as the shortened- and control-tailed males were equally successful in acquiring territories of similar size and quality. In contrast, however, although the longer-tailed control males spent less time in flight and courtship displays, they attracted significantly more prospecting and nearly three times as many nesting females to their territories compared to the short-tailed males. In further support of tail length as the primary mate choice cue, none of the other measured and potential female cues (e.g. body size, collar colorimetrics, territorial behaviours or territory quality) influenced male reproductive success. In addition to potentially increasing detectability ('signal efficacy'), the long tail is also a likely indicator of male quality ('signal content'). Despite the higher activities of short-tailed males, control-tailed males showed a steeper decline in condition (relative body mass) during the breeding season. Furthermore, both short- and control-tailed residents lost more condition than did the short- and control-treated floaters (males not establishing territories), suggesting an interaction between tail length and the costs of territory acquisition, defence and courtship displays. These results confirm the role of mate choice and honest quality advertising as the main selection pressures behind elongated tails in widowbirds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)35-43
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2005


  • Euplectes ardens
  • Male choice
  • Male quality
  • Sexual selection
  • Tail length

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