Mechanosensory function for facial ornamentation in the whiskered auklet, a crevice-dwelling seabird

Sampath S. Seneviratne, Ian L. Jones
2008 Behavioral Ecology  
Sexual selection has been the prevalent explanation for the evolution of birds' elaborate feather ornaments. An overlooked possibility is that feather appendages arose due to a naturally selected sensory function involving sensitivity to pressure or touch to facilitate obstacle avoidance either in flight or on land. Here, we show experimentally that elongated facial feather adornments of whiskered auklets (Aethia pygmaea), a sexually monomorphic crevice-dwelling seabird, have a mechanosensory
more » ... a mechanosensory use for orientation in darkness underground. While navigating inside a lightproof maze simulating the structure and conditions of breeding crevices, whiskered auklets (n = 99) showed a 275% increase in frequency of head bumps in the absence of their protruding feather crest and facial plumes. A weak positive relationship (R = 0.36, P = 0.04) between natural crest length and the frequency of head bumps in the absence of the crest suggested that individuals with longer ornaments depend more on these traits for navigation in the wild. We hypothesize that protruding feathers evolved through a combination of natural selection for sensory function and sexual selection as known for other auklets. More widely, birds inhabiting cluttered environments would benefit from elongated facial plumage that mechanically detects obstacles.
doi:10.1093/beheco/arn029 fatcat:n6xei6eaqrblfmvyikyv4lfiem