Mute swan population helps explain longstanding evolutionary question

In an important new study forthcoming from The American Naturalist, biologists from the University of Oxford tracked a colony of mute swans for more than two decades to explore a longstanding evolutionary question: whether the number of eggs laid by a female bird – known as "clutch size" – changes in accordance with natural selection.

"Extensive debate in the literature…was first focused on the question: Why does a population's average clutch size differ from the most productive clutch size?" said researcher Ann Charmantier. "Gradually the debate switched to an evolutionary point of view with a second, related question: Why is clutch size not evolving despite significant heritability and directional selection?"

Many long-term studies of avian clutch size have looked for--but not seen-- an increase in the number of eggs laid. However, this 25-year study of the selection, inheritance, and evolution in the mute swan population of Abbotsbury, England, yielded data on clutch size consistent with the direction predicted by evolutionary theory.

"In this study population, clutch size shows a clear response to selection, providing us with a clear illustration of microevolutionary process on a small timescale," explain the researchers.

The researchers hypothesize that a recent relaxation of food constraints and an increase in protection from predators may have helped enable the swans to evolve towards a new, larger clutch size.

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Since its inception in 1867, The American Naturalist has maintained its position as one of the world's most renowned, peer-reviewed publications in ecology, evolution, and population and integrative biology research. AN emphasizes sophisticated methodologies and innovative theoretical syntheses--all in an effort to advance the knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles.

Charmantier, Ann, Christoper Perrins, Robin H. McCleery, and Ben C. Sheldon. "Evolutionary response to selection on clutch size in a long-term study of the mute swan," The American Naturalist 167:2.


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