Mate choice and immunocompetence in ostriches (Struthio camelus)

Bonato, Maud (2009-03)

Thesis (PhD (Botany and Zoology))—University of Stellenbosch, 2009.


Females of many bird species prefer to mate with males exhibiting elaborate ornamentation, which serves as an indicator of male quality. Such ornaments, called secondary sexual traits, could act as signals to females that males could confer direct and/or indirect genetic benefits (when offspring inherit superior genes), on offspring. In particular, it has been suggested that these signals relate to male ability to resist infections, as only high quality individuals are able to invest both in high immune defence and elaborate ornament expression. The ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the largest living bird and is a member of the family of flightless birds, the ratites. They are sexually dimorphic, males displaying black plumage, and a pink-coloured neck and bill; whereas females display dull-brown plumage (both sexes have white feathers). Little is known about the mating system of ostriches: they are promiscuous and in the wild, males and females have multiple partners. The communal nesting system of ostriches is unique in that only the major female and major male provide parental care, in the form of incubation and guarding the offspring until independence. Furthermore, a remarkable feature of cohorts is that offspring may differ greatly in size, and these size differences are likely to have a genetic basis arising from differing parental genotypic differences. As a trade-off between immune response and life-history traits has been documented in various bird species, I examined the relationships between male secondary sexual traits (and specifically colouration) and maternal investment; levels of immunocompetence in both parents and chicks; and chick growth. This study showed that females invest more at the egg stage in response to traits involved in the male courtship display: the colour of the neck, white and black body feathers, and the brightness of black feathers. As these traits, which are exposed during the courtship display as well as during male-male interactions, were related to male immune responses, I suggest that only high quality males will be able to display their condition optimally. Chicks with higher growth rates were found to have intermediate responses to stimulation of their humoral immune system with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines, suggesting that not only fitness benefits, but also costs are associated with mounting an immune response; and that variation in humoral responses and growth rates relates to how individuals trade off these costs and benefits. In addition, chick humoral responses were found to be related to the humoral response of both parents, but through different antibody responses (maternal responses to tetanus and paternal responses to diphtheria), suggesting that this component of the immune system is heritable. As the colouration of white feathers predicted chick growth rates, as well as a male’s ability to raise an antibody response, I suggest that this visual cue could serve as a signal to females of male humoral immunocompetence, therefore forming the basis of mate choice whereby females could increase the fitness of their offspring through higher growth rates.

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