Context-dependent genetic benefits of extra-pair mate choice in a socially monogamous passerine

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Extra-pair paternity is common in socially monogamous passerines; however, despite considerable research attention, consistent differences in fitness between within-pair offspring (WPO) and extra-pair offspring (EPO) have not been demonstrated. Recent evidence indicates that differences between maternal half-siblings may depend on environmental conditions, but it is unclear whether the influence of paternal genetic contribution should be most apparent under comparatively poor or favourable conditions. We compared phenotypic characteristics of WPO and EPO in 30 mixed-paternity broods of the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) in relation to experimentally increased nest temperature (n = 13 heated nests; 17 control nests) and natural abundance of haematophagous parasites (Protocalliphora spp.). This allowed us to test the hypothesis that genetic benefits of extra-pair mating are environment dependent. EPO grew their ninth primary feathers faster than WPO regardless of nest temperature or parasite load and had significantly longer ninth primary feathers at fledging when parasite abundance was low, and when they were positioned early in the hatching sequence relative to WPO. In contrast, WPO under similar conditions did not differ from EPO in any phenotypic trait measured. These results indicate that the fitness benefits of extra-pair mating are likely to be context dependent, and that genetic effects on some phenotypic traits may be more apparent when conditions are relatively favourable.

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