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Keywords:

  • barn owl;
  • female ornamentation;
  • genetic correlation;
  • good genes;
  • sexual selection

Most bird studies of female signalling have been confined to species in which females display a male-ornament in a vestigial form. However, a great deal of benefit may be gained from considering phenotypic traits that are specific to females. This is because (1) sex-specific traits may signal sex-specific qualities and (2) females may develop a male-ornament not because they are selected to do so, but because fathers transmit to daughters the underlying genes for its expression (genetic correlation between the sexes). We investigated these two propositions in the barn owl Tyto alba, a species in which male plumage is lighter in colour and less marked with black spots than that of females. Firstly, we present published evidence that female plumage spottiness reflects parasite resistance ability. We also show that male plumage coloration is correlated with reproductive success, male feeding rate and heart mass. Secondly, cross-fostering experiments demonstrate that plumage coloration and spottiness are genetically correlated between the sexes. This implies that if a given trait value is selected in one sex, the other sex will indirectly evolve towards a similar value. This prediction is supported by the observation that female plumage coloration and spottiness resembled that of males, in comparisons at the level of Tyto alba alba populations, Tyto alba subspecies and Tyto species. Our results therefore support the hypothesis that sex-specific traits signal sex-specific qualities and that a gene for a sex-specific trait can be expressed in the other sex as the consequence of a genetic correlation between the sexes.