Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 63, Issue 6, pp 911–922 | Cite as

Multiple paternity and offspring quality in tree swallows

  • Peter O. DunnEmail author
  • Jan T. Lifjeld
  • Linda A. Whittingham
Original Paper


There is mounting evidence in a variety of taxa that females increase offspring quality by mating with multiple males, often resulting in multiple paternity. In birds, however, few studies have explicitly examined the benefits of mating with several different males; instead, the focus has been on whether or not extra-pair mating occurs, and its adaptive significance remains controversial. We examined the hypothesis that offspring quality, particularly immune response (phytohaemagglutinin assay) and growth, increases with the number of sires in broods of socially monogamous tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). We found one of the highest known levels of multiple paternity in birds (84% of nests with two or more extra-pair young had at least two extra-pair sires). Among nests with extra-pair young, the number and diversity of sires continued to increase linearly with the number of extra-pair young, so there was no evidence that some males monopolized paternity at high levels of extra-pair fertilization. Indeed, the number of sires was actually greater than expected in large broods, suggesting that some females might be seeking more mates. We found no effect of the number of sires on nestling immune response or growth. In mixed paternity broods, the immune response of extra-pair young did not differ from that of their within-pair half-siblings. However, among all broods, nestlings had a stronger immune response in nests with at least one extra-pair nestling than in nests with all within-pair nestlings. These results are not consistent with a good genes benefit of extra-pair mating, but they do suggest that there are environmental effects associated with extra-pair mating that increase nestling immune response. These environmental effects could produce indirect genetic effects on sexual selection if they are heritable. The extraordinarily high number of sires in this species highlights a relatively unexplored source of sexual selection in birds.


Extra-pair paternity Genetic benefits Immune response Genetic polyandry 



We thank Mary Stapleton and Stacy Valkenaar for assistance in the field and the staff at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Field Station for logistic support. Bryan Neff helped with the simulation model, and Jeff Graves, Bart Kempenaers, Dustin Rubenstein, and an anonymous reviewer provided helpful comments on the manuscript. This study was approved by the Animal Care and Use Committee at UWM (protocol 99-00#19). The project was funded by the National Science Foundation (LAW and POD) and the Nansen Endowment (JTL). JTL was supported by a grant from the University of Oslo and the Research Council of Norway during a sabbatical stay at UWM.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter O. Dunn
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jan T. Lifjeld
    • 2
  • Linda A. Whittingham
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeMilwaukeeUSA
  2. 2.National Centre for Biosystematics, Natural History MuseumUniversity of OsloBlindernOsloNorway

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