• barn owl;
  • breeding success;
  • divorce;
  • female ornament;
  • incompatibility hypothesis;
  • melanin


Two nonmutually exclusive hypotheses can explain why divorce is an adaptive strategy to improve reproductive success. Under the ‘better option hypothesis’, only one of the two partners initiates divorce to secure a higher-quality partner and increases reproductive success after divorce. Under the ‘incompatibility hypothesis’, partners are incompatible and hence they may both increase reproductive success after divorce. In a long-term study of the barn owl (Tyto alba), we address the question of whether one or the two partners derive fitness benefits by divorcing. Our results support the hypothesis that divorce is adaptive: after a poor reproductive season, at least one of the two divorcees increase breeding success up to the level of faithful pairs. By breeding more often together, faithful pairs improve coordination and thereby gain in their efficiency to produce successful fledglings. Males would divorce to obtain a compatible mate rather than a mate of higher quality: a heritable melanin-based signal of female quality did not predict divorce (indicating that female absolute quality may not be the cause of divorce), but the new mate of divorced males was less melanic than their previous mate. This suggests that, at least for males, a cost of divorce may be to secure a lower-quality but compatible mate. The better option hypothesis could not be formally rejected, as only one of the two divorcing partners commonly succeeded in obtaining a higher reproductive success after divorce. In conclusion, incompatible partners divorce to restore reproductive success, and by breeding more often together, faithful partners improve coordination.