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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Radical loss of an extreme extra-pair mating system

Sjouke A Kingma1*, Michelle L Hall1, Gernot Segelbacher2 and Anne Peters1

Author Affiliations

1 Behavioral Ecology of Sexual Signals Group, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Vogelwarte Radolfzell, Schlossallee 2, 78315, Radolfzell, Germany

2 Department of Wildlife Ecology and Management, University of Freiburg, Tennenbacher Strasse 4, Freiburg, 79106, Germany

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BMC Ecology 2009, 9:15  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-9-15

Published: 19 May 2009



Mating outside the pair-bond is surprisingly common in socially monogamous birds, but rates of extra-pair paternity (EPP) vary widely between species. Although differences in life-history and contemporary ecological factors may explain some interspecific variation, evolutionary forces driving extra-pair (EP) mating remain largely obscure. Also, since there is a large phylogenetic component to the frequency of EPP, evolutionary inertia may contribute substantially to observed EP mating patterns. However, the relative importance of plasticity and phylogenetic constraints on the incidence of EP mating remains largely unknown.


We here demonstrate very low levels of EPP (4.4% of offspring) in the purple-crowned fairy-wren Malurus coronatus, a member of the genus with the highest known levels of EPP in birds. In addition, we show absence of the suite of distinctive behavioral and morphological adaptations associated with EP mating that characterize other fairy-wrens. Phylogenetic parsimony implies that these characteristics were lost in one speciation event. Nonetheless, many life-history and breeding parameters that are hypothesized to drive interspecific variation in EPP are not different in the purple-crowned fairy-wren compared to its promiscuous congeners.


Such radical loss of an extreme EP mating system with all associated adaptations from a lineage of biologically very similar species indicates that evolutionary inertia does not necessarily constrain interspecific variation in EPP. Moreover, if apparently minor interspecific differences regularly cause large differences in EPP, this may be one reason why the evolution of EP mating is still poorly understood.