Flight feather shaft structure of two warbler species with different moult schedules: a study using high-resolution X-ray imaging


  • Editor: Andrew Kitchener

Thomas P. Weber, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Via E. Fermi 2749, I-21027 Ispra (VA), Italy. Tel: 0039 0332 785165
Email: thomas.weber@jrc.ec.europa.eu


Plumage constitutes a significant component of the somatic investment of birds. A detailed investigation of feathers and moult can help to uncover trade-offs involved in somatic investment decisions, the sources of some of the costs birds have to pay and the potential fitness consequences. We used micro-computed tomography imaging to study the second moment of area, a structural parameter that is one determinant of bending stiffness and the cortex volume of flight feather shafts of two sister taxa, the willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, a migratory species with two annual moults, and the chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, a migrant with one annual post-nuptial moult. Juvenile and adult willow warbler and chiffchaff feathers, all grown on the breeding grounds, are structurally very similar to each other. Willow warbler feathers grown during moult on the wintering grounds, however, have a significantly higher second moment of area and a significantly larger cortex volume than all the other feather types. We discuss the possibility that the seasonal variability of willow warbler feathers may be an adaptive structural reflection of a moult–migration strategy that has allowed this species to occupy large breeding and wintering ranges.