Females of the White-shouldered fairywren are ornamented in some populations. This is an amazing system to understand the evolution of female ornamentation. In this paper, we combined WGS, feather transcriptomics, and hormone experiment to study the evolution and genetic basis of female ornamentation.
The evolutionary history and mechanistic basis of female ornamentation in a tropical songbird
Ornamentation, such as the showy plumage of birds, is widespread among female vertebrates, yet the evolutionary pressures shaping female ornamentation remain uncertain. In part this is due to a poor understanding of the mechanistic route to ornamentation in females. To address this issue, we evaluated the evolutionary history of ornament expression in a tropical passerine bird, the White-shouldered Fairywren, whose females, but not males, strongly vary between populations in occurrence of ornamented black-and-white plumage. We first use phylogenomic analysis to demonstrate that female ornamentation is derived and that female ornamentation evolves independently of changes in male plumage. We then use exogenous testosterone in a field experiment to induce partial ornamentation in naturally unornamented females. By sequencing the transcriptome of experimentally induced ornamented and natural feathers, we identify genes expressed during ornament production and evaluate the degree to which female ornamentation in this system is associated with elevated testosterone, as is common in males. We reveal that some ornamentation in females is linked to testosterone and that sexes differ in ornament-linked gene expression. Lastly, using genomic outlier analysis we identify a candidate melanogenesis gene that lies in a region of high genomic divergence among populations that is also differentially expressed in feather follicles of different female plumages. Taken together, these findings are consistent with sex-specific selection favoring the evolution of female ornaments and demonstrate a key role for testosterone in generating population divergence in female ornamentation through gene regulation. More broadly, our work highlights similarities and differences in how ornamentation evolves in the sexes.
Photo credit: Erik Enbody