Rapid evolutionary change in a secondary sexual character linked to climatic change

A. P. Møller, T. Szép

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

65 Citations (Scopus)


The ability of organisms to respond evolutionarily to rapid climatic change is poorly known. Secondary sexual characters show the potential for rapid evolutionary change, as evidenced by strong divergence among species and high evolvability. Here we show that the length of the outermost tail feathers of males of the socially monogamous barn swallow Hirundo rustica, feathers that provide a mating advantage to males, has increased by more than 1 standard deviation during the period from 1984 to 2003. Barn swallows from the Danish population studied here migrate through the Iberian Peninsula to South Africa in fall, and return along the same route in spring. Environmental conditions on the spring staging grounds in Algeria, as indexed by the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, predicted tail length and change in tail length across generations. However, conditions in the winter quarters and at the breeding grounds did not predict change in tail length. Environmental conditions in Algeria in spring showed a temporal deterioration during the study period, associated with a reduction in annual survival rate of male barn swallows. Phenotypic plasticity in tail length of males, estimated as the increase in tail length from the age of 1 to 2 years, decreased during the course of the study. Estimates of directional selection differentials for male tail length with respect to mating success, breeding date, fecundity, survival and total selection showed temporal variation, with the intensity of breeding date selection, survival selection and total selection declining during the study. Response to selection as estimated from the product of heritability and total selection was very similar to the observed temporal change in tail length. These findings provide evidence of rapid micro-evolutionary change in a secondary sexual character during a very short time period, which is associated with a rapid change in environmental conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)481-495
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1 2005



  • Barn swallow
  • Climate change
  • Condition-dependence
  • Evolution
  • Hirundo rustica
  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • Remote sensing
  • Survival

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

Cite this