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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Female house sparrows "count on" male genes: experimental evidence for MHC-dependent mate preference in birds

Matteo Griggio12*, Clotilde Biard13, Dustin J Penn12 and Herbert Hoi12

Author affiliations

1 Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria

2 Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology, Department of Integrative Biology and Evolution, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Savoyenstrasse 1a, 1160 Vienna, Austria

3 UMR 7625 Ecologie & Evolution, Université Pierre et Marie Curie UPMC, CNRS ENS AgroParisTech, 7 quai Saint Bernard (case 237), F-75252 Paris Cedex 05, France

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:44  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-44

Published: 14 February 2011



Females can potentially assess the quality of potential mates using their secondary sexual traits, and obtain "good genes" that increase offspring fitness. Another potential indirect benefit from mating preferences is genetic compatibility, which does not require extravagant or viability indicator traits. Several studies with mammals and fish indicate that the genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) influence olfactory cues and mating preferences, and such preferences confer genetic benefits to offspring. We investigated whether individual MHC diversity (class I) influences mating preferences in house sparrows (Passer domesticus).


Overall, we found no evidence that females preferred males with high individual MHC diversity. Yet, when we considered individual MHC allelic diversity of the females, we found that females with a low number of alleles were most attracted to males carrying a high number of MHC alleles, which might reflect a mating-up preference by allele counting.


This is the first experimental evidence for MHC-dependent mating preferences in an avian species to our knowledge. Our findings raise questions about the underlying mechanisms through which birds discriminate individual MHC diversity among conspecifics, and they suggest a novel mechanism through which mating preferences might promote the evolution of MHC polymorphisms and generate positive selection for duplicated MHC loci.