, Volume 32, Issue 3, pp 167-176

Why have birds got multiple sexual ornaments?

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Males of many animals have more than a single exaggerated secondary sexual character, but inter-specific variability in the number of ornaments has never been explained. We examine three hypotheses that may account for the presence of multiple ornaments. First, the multiple message hypothesis proposes that each display reflects a single property of the overall quality of an animal. This is likely to be the case for ornaments that respond to condition on different time scales. Second, the redundant signal hypothesis suggests that each ornament gives a partial indication of condition. Females pay attention to several sex traits because in combination they provide a better estimate of general condition than does any single ornament. The redundant signal hypothesis predicts that (i) multiple ornaments should be particularly common among taxa with relatively uncostly and fine-tuned female choice, and (ii) females pay equal attention to the expression of all the secondary sex traits in order to obtain an estimate of overall male condition. Finally, the unreliable signal hypothesis argues that some ornaments are unreliable indicators of overall condition and are only maintained because they are relatively uncostly to produce and there is a weak female preference for them. This predicts that (i) multiple sexual ornaments should be particularly common in taxa with the most intense sexual selection (i.e. lekking and other polygynous taxa), and (ii) there should be more evidence for condition dependence in ornaments of species with single as opposed to multiple ornaments. Both the latter predictions are supported by data on feather ornaments in birds.

Correspondence to: A. Pomiankowski