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There is abundant evidence for the existence of marked mate preferences in natural populations, but the occurrence of within-population variation in mate preferences has received little attention and is often regarded as nonadaptive deviation from the optimal norm. Here we show experimentally that the preference of female collared flycatchers Ficedula albicollis for male forehead patch size, a sexually selected trait, varies with the time of breeding, an environmental factor with strong effects on reproductive success. Contrary to expectations based on time-constrained choice models, only late-breeding females prefer males with a large patch size. The variation in mate preference matches a seasonal change in female reproductive success: long-term data reveal a positive relationship between female reproductive success and male patch size exclusively in late breeders. In addition, female reproductive effort, as assessed by clutch size, appears to be adjusted relative to both timing of breeding and male phenotype. We conclude that not only can mate preferences display adaptive plasticity within populations, but this plasticity can also be linked to differences in reproductive investment.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





344 - 347


Adaptation, Physiological, Animals, Female, Male, Reproduction, Seasons, Sexual Behavior, Animal, Songbirds