Sexual Traits as Quality Indicators in Lekking Male Great Bustards


Juan C. Alonso, Departamento de Ecología Evolutiva, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, CSIC, José Gutiérrez Abascal 2, E-28006 Madrid, Spain.


We studied the development of two sexual traits, whiskers and neck plumage, in relation to sexual selection in 41 free-living great bustard, Otis tarda, males radio-tracked at nine leks in central Spain in 1998–2001. During the pre-breeding male–male competition period (Feb.) prior to female arrival, number and length of whiskers correlated with weight, but not with body size or age. Whiskers may thus have evolved as an intrasexual indicator of weight, which in the absence of other weapons in this species is decisive in male–male combats. Signalling through whiskers contributes to minimizing dangerous aggressive interactions in the lek. During the mating period (Apr.), both whisker and neck development were correlated with weight and age. Males reaching higher expression of both traits exhibited higher display intensity, a more prolonged display period through the mating season, and a higher estimated mating success. Moreover, interannual changes in a male’s expression of both traits were associated with changes in its display intensity and estimated mating success. Our results resolve earlier debates and contradictory results from previous authors, suggesting that these two secondary sexual traits, whiskers and neck, may function as reliable indicators of age and weight, the two main factors determining social rank of males in great bustard leks, during both rival assessment and mate choice. Their dual functions provide support for the pre-existing trait and redundant signal hypotheses and suggest that multiple ornaments functioning as redundant signals might be more widespread than previously acknowledged.