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In species with discrete morphs exhibiting alternative behavioral strategies, individuals may vary their aggressive behavior in competitive encounters according to the phenotype of their opponent. Such aggression bias has been documented in multiple polymorphic species evolving under negative frequency-dependent selection, but it has not been well-studied under other selection regimes. We investigated this phenomenon in white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), a passerine with plumage polychromatism maintained by disassortative mating. The two distinct color morphs differ with respect to reproductive strategy in that white-striped birds invest more in territorial aggression than tan-striped birds. Whether territorial aggression in this species is biased according to the morph of an intruder is less understood. We found that during peak territorial and mating activity, both color morphs and sexes can exhibit aggression bias, but whether they do so depends on the strategy (morph) of the intruder. During simulated territorial intrusions, resident white-striped males and tan-striped females, which represent the opposite ends of a continuum from high to low territorial aggression, altered their territorial responses according to intruder morph. Tan-striped males and white-striped females, which represent the middle of the continuum, did not show a bias. We propose that because of the disassortative mating system and morph differences in reproductive strategy, the fitness risks of intrusions vary according to the morphs of the resident and the intruder, and that aggression bias is an attuned response to varying threats to fitness.


This article originally appeared in PLoS ONE, available at DOI: 10.1371/ journal.pone.0048705

© 2012 Horton et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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