The evolution, maintenance and adaptive function of genetic colour polymorphism in birds


*Present address: Department of Ecology and Evolution, Biology Building, University of Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland.


The hypothesis that ornaments can honestly signal quality only if their expression is condition-dependent has dominated the study of the evolution and function of colour traits. Much less interest has been devoted to the adaptive function of colour traits for which the expression is not, or is to a low extent, sensitive to body condition and the environment in which individuals live. The aim of the present paper is to review the current theoretical and empirical knowledge of the evolution, maintenance and adaptive function of colour plumage traits for which the expression is mainly under genetic control. The finding that in many bird species the inheritance of colour morphs follows the laws of Mendel indicates that genetic colour polymorphism is frequent. Polymorphism may have evolved or be maintained because each colour morph facilitates the exploitation of alternative ecological niches as suggested by the observation that individuals are not randomly distributed among habitats with respect to coloration. Consistent with the hypothesis that different colour morphs are linked to alternative strategies is the finding that in a majority of species polymorphism is associated with reproductive parameters, and behavioural, life-history and physiological traits. Experimental studies showed that such covariations can have a genetic basis. These observations suggest that colour polymorphism has an adaptive function. Aviary and field experiments demonstrated that colour polymorphism is used as a criterion in mate-choice decisions and dominance interactions confirming the claim that conspecifics assess each other's colour morphs. The factors favouring the evolution and maintenance of genetic variation in coloration are reviewed, but empirical data are virtually lacking to assess their importance. Although current theory predicts that only condition-dependent traits can signal quality, the present review shows that genetically inherited morphs can reveal the same qualities. The study of genetic colour polymorphism will provide important and original insights on the adaptive function of conspicuous traits.