Phenotypic plasticity affects the response of a sexually selected trait to anthropogenic noise

Mary Montague, Marie-Christine Danek-Gontard, Hansjoerg Kunc

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Citations (Scopus)


Sexually selected traits are shaped by an interaction between sexual selection and other natural selection pressures in the environment. However, there is little understanding of how recent anthropogenic environmental change affects the elaboration of sexually selected traits. Most sexually selected traits are complex displays comprising multiple components that interact in a functional way, thereby affecting overall trait expression. To understand how environmental change may shape the expression of sexually selected traits, we have to consider not only (i) the phenotypic plasticity of individual components of traits but also their (ii) phenotypic integration, that is, the correlations among trait components, as well as (iii) plasticity integration, that is, the correlations among the plasticities of trait components. Here, we show that background noise is a considerable pressure in shaping a sexually selected multicomponent acoustic signal, bird song. We compared singing behavior of European robins (Erithacus rubecula) in territories that differed in levels of anthropogenic noise and conducted noise-exposure experiments to test if behavioral plasticity caused immediate changes in song components, for example, minimum frequency, song complexity, and song length. We found that song components differed in their plasticity to background noise and that plasticity integration between components may further restrict the elaboration of song. Thus, the altered expression of song components under noise exposure leads to increased phenotypic integration, which is linked with reduced song complexity. Our findings demonstrate that plasticity integration restricts the elaboration of a sexually selected trait, which raises the question of how changing environments may modify sexual selection.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)342-348
Number of pages7
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number2
Early online date01 Nov 2012
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013


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