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Age shapes fundamental processes related to behaviour, survival and reproduction. Where age influences reproductive success, non-random mating with respect to age can magnify or mitigate such effects. Consequently, the correlation in partners' age across a population may influence its productivity. Despite widespread evidence for age-assortative mating, little is known about what drives this assortment and its variation. Specifically, the relative importance of active (same-age mate preference) and passive processes (assortment as a consequence of other spatial or temporal effects) in driving age-assortment is not well understood. In this paper, we compare breeding data from a great tit and mute swan population (51- and 31-year datasets respectively) to tease apart the contributions of pair retention, cohort age-structure, and active age-related mate selection to age-assortment in species with contrasting life-histories. Both species show age-assortative mating, and variable assortment between years. However, we demonstrate that the drivers of age-assortment differ between the species, as expected from their life-histories and resultant demographic differences. In great tits, pair fidelity has a weak effect on age-assortative mating through pair retention; variation in age-assortment is primarily driven by fluctuations in age-structure from variable juvenile recruitment. Age-assortative mating is therefore largely passive, with no evidence consistent with active age-related mate selection. In mute swans, age-assortment is partly explained by pair retention, but not population age-structure, and evidence exists for active age-assortative pairing. This difference is likely to result from shorter life-spans in great tits compared to mute swans, leading to fundamental differences in their population age-structure, whereby a larger proportion of great tit populations consist of a single age-cohort. In mute swans, age-assortative pairing through mate selection may also be driven by greater age-dependent variation in fitness. The study highlights the importance of considering how different life-histories, and demographic differences arising from these, affect population processes that appear congruent across species. We suggest that future research should focus on uncovering the proximate mechanisms that lead to variation in active age-assortative mate selection (as seen in mute swans); and the consequences of variation in age-structure on the ecological and social functioning of wild populations.

Original publication




Journal article


J Anim Ecol

Publication Date



Age-assortative mating, Cygnus olor, Parus major, assortative mating, mate choice, natural populations, pair fidelity, population age-structure