Evolution of iris colour in relation to cavity nesting and parental care in passerine birds

Gabrielle L. Davidson, Alex Thornton, Nicola S. Clayton

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Strong selection pressures are known to act on animal coloration. Although many animals vary in eye colour, virtually no research has investigated the functional significance of these colour traits. Passeriformes have a range of iris colours, making them an ideal system to investigate how and why iris colour has evolved. Using phylogenetic comparative methods, we tested the hypothesis that conspicuous iris colour in passerine birds evolved in response to (a) coordination of offspring care and (b) cavity nesting, two traits thought to be involved in intra-specific gaze sensitivity. We found that iris colour and cooperative offspring care by two or more individuals evolved independently, suggesting that bright eyes are not important for coordinating parental care through eye gaze. Furthermore, we found that evolution between iris colour and nesting behaviour did occur in a dependent manner, but contrary to predictions, transitions to coloured eyes were not more frequent in cavity nesters than non-cavity nesters. Instead, our results indicate that selection away from having bright eyes was much stronger in non-cavity nesters than cavity nesters, perhaps because conspicuous eye coloration in species not concealed within a cavity would be more visible to predators.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017

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