A longitudinal analysis of the growth rate and mass of tail feathers in a great tit population: ontogeny, genetic effects and relationship between both traits

Iván de la Hera, Michael S. Reichert, Gabrielle L. Davidson, John L. Quinn

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Feathers have a diversity of functions in birds and are costly to produce, so their growth rate and mass can be reliable indicators of nutritional condition at the time of production. Despite the potential for feather metrics to advance our understanding of foraging, they are underused in avian ecology. One reason for this is the difficulty of interpreting whether individual variation is driven by ontogenetic, genetic or environmental effects, which is exacerbated by the fact that most analyses have been done on cross-sectional data. We addressed this deficit using a longitudinal dataset of tail feathers collected from great tits Parus major to test for ontogenetic and genetic effects on growth rate, mass and length, while controlling for body/feather size differences and other confounding factors. First, we found that the type of moult episode and experimentally-induced replacement differentially affected the length, mass and growth of feathers, providing evidence of an ontogenetic effect that should be considered when comparing these feather traits across individuals as a measure of condition. Second, we detected moderate to high repeatability and heritability values from parent–offspring regression for these three feather traits, which are suggestive of an underlying genetic component of variation. Third, we used a mean centring within-individual approach to test whether feather growth rate and feather mass (length-corrected) are indeed positively correlated with each other as overlapping indicators of body condition in birds, and found that this association, although positive, is weak and only significant between individuals. This suggests that both metrics are not so intimately linked as originally thought, and probably have different sensitivities to variation in foraging performance and ecological conditions. Together with the higher plasticity of feather growth rate compared to feather mass, our results support the idea that feather growth rate is better suited for examining short-term responses to environmental variation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02894
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number5
Early online date8 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - May 2022


  • adventitious replacement
  • growth bars
  • induced rectrix feather
  • Ireland
  • ptilochronology

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