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Postnatal nutrition influences male attractiveness and promotes plasticity in male mating preferences


Poor early-life nutrition could reduce adult reproductive success by negatively affecting traits linked to sexual attractiveness such as song complexity. If so, this might favor strategic mate choice, allowing males with less complex songs to tailor their mating tactics to maximize the reproductive benefits. However, this possibility has been ignored in theoretical and empirical studies. By manipulating the micronutrient content of the diet (e.g., low or high) during the postnatal period of male zebra finches, we show for the first time (1) that males reared on a poor (low) micronutrient diet had less complex songs as adults; (2) that these males, in contrast to the high micronutrient diet group, were more selective in their mating strategies, discriminating against those females most likely to reduce their clutch size when paired with males having less complex songs; and (3) that by following different mating strategies, males reared on the contrasting diets obtained similar reproductive benefits. These results suggest that early-life dietary conditions can induce multiple and long-lasting effects on male and female reproductive traits. Moreover, the results seem to reflect a previously unreported case of adaptive plasticity in mate choice in response to a nutritionally mediated reduction in sexual attractiveness.

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We thank the animal care staff for their support and P. Surai for his advice with the micronutrient treatment. We also thank S. Cowan and L. Glen for their help during the experiment, R. Bassar and S. Auer for the constructive comments on the statistical analyses, and K. Buchanan and D. Gil for their advice with the song recordings. We also thank three anonymous referees for their comments which greatly improved the manuscript.


JCN was supported by AXA Research fellowship (PDOC-2013-W1) and later on by a Juan de la Cierva Fellowship (IJCI-2014-20246), NBM by ERC Advanced Grant (322784), and PM by ERC Advanced Grant (268926).

Author information

JCN, NBM, and PM conceived and designed the experiments. JCN performed the experiments and analyzed the data. JCN, NBM, and PM wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to José C. Noguera.

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Ethical approval

The study was carried out with the permission of UK Home Office and all tests were subjected to local ethical review (Project License No. 60/4109).

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Communicated by: Sven Thatje

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Noguera, J.C., Metcalfe, N.B. & Monaghan, P. Postnatal nutrition influences male attractiveness and promotes plasticity in male mating preferences. Sci Nat 104, 102 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-017-1524-y

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  • Differential allocation
  • Fertility
  • Mate choice
  • Song
  • Taeniopygia guttata