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Open Access Research article

Food supplements increase adult tarsus length, but not growth rate, in an island population of house sparrows (Passer domesticus)

Ian R Cleasby1*, Terry Burke1, Julia Schroeder1 and Shinichi Nakagawa2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK

2 Department of Zoology, University of Otago, Dunedin, PO Box 56, New Zealand

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BMC Research Notes 2011, 4:431  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-4-431

Published: 21 October 2011



Variation in food supply during early development can influence growth rate and body size in many species. However, whilst the detrimental effects of food restriction have often been studied in natural populations, how young individuals respond to an artificial increase in food supply is rarely investigated. Here, we investigated both the short-term and long-term effects of providing house sparrow chicks with food supplements during a key period of growth and development and assessed whether providing food supplements had any persistent effect upon adult size (measured here as tarsus length).


Male nestlings tended to reach higher mass asymptotes than females. Furthermore, brood size was negatively associated with a chick's asymptotic mass. However, providing food supplements had no influence upon the growth rate or the asymptotic mass of chicks. Adults that received food supplements as chicks were larger, in terms of their tarsus length, than adults that did not receive extra food as chicks. In addition, the variation in tarsus length amongst adult males that were given food supplements as chicks was significantly less than the variance observed amongst males that did not receive food supplements.


Our results demonstrate that the food supply chicks experience during a critical developmental period can have a permanent effect upon their adult phenotype. Furthermore, providing extra food to chicks resulted in sex-biased variance in a size-related trait amongst adults, which shows that the degree of sexual size dimorphism can be affected by the environment experienced during growth.