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Periodic Report Summary 1 - SEX SEL - VAR (Sexual selection - How is variation maintained?)

Understanding how genetic variation is maintained in natural populations is vital for our understanding of the process of evolution, since natural selection acts on the variation between individuals. Through sexual selection, females are thought to choose males with the most striking displays, which are heritable, leading to exaggerated male traits. However, if females always choose the ‘best’ males for heritable traits, this would drive a rapid and seemingly deleterious decrease genetic diversity among males. This problem – known as the ‘lek paradox’ – is of fundamental importance because understanding this process will help us understand how genetic diversity is maintained.

Sexual selection is a key driving force behind the development and maintenance of exaggerated traits, adaptation to new environments, speciation, and animal breeding. This study combines lab, field, state-of-the-art genetic techniques and theoretical modeling in a truly integrative project, which will considerably further our understanding of sexual selection and the maintenance of variation.

Wild great tits (Parus major) were tested for their individual mate preference functions in the lab, by presenting them with unknown partners. Their preference function describes how much they are attracted to different aspects of a mates appearance or genetic quality. Many aspects of both the choosers and partners phenotype and genotype were measured, for example plumage characters, personality (exploratory behaviour), and genetic heterogysosity. This reveals for the first time that individuals differ in their preference, and preliminary results suggest that this depends on the choosers own phenotype. The choosing individuals were then followed while breeding the following Spring, to assess reproductive investment with the partner they actually pair with. This is the first time that individual differences in mate choice behaviour have been followed up in the wild.

The next phase of the project will model how individual differences in mate preference contribute to genetic and phenotypic diversity. Since starting this project, Camilla Hinde has built her research group at Wageningen University and attained tenure at Associate Professor level.

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Life Sciences