Limits to sexual size dimorphism in red-winged blackbirds: The cost of getting big?

Patrick J. Weatherhead, Kevin W. Dufour

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A fundamental assumption of sexual selection theory is that the reproductive advantage of large size is balanced by a survival disadvantage. Previous studies of the sexually size-dimorphic red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) have indicated that the largest adult males have a survival advantage, suggesting that the limit to male size may be the cost of getting big rather than the cost of being big. If the cost of getting big limits male size, then starvation rates for male nestlings should exceed those of female nestlings. In addition, given high heritability of body size, larger parents should lose more nestlings, particularly males, to starvation. We tested these predictions for red-winged blackbirds using data on the sex of 1356 fledglings from 465 nests collected over 10 years. We found no disadvantage for male nestlings relative to females - 49% of fledglings were male and previous research had shown that 48% of hatchlings are male. We also found no disadvantage for male nestlings that would become large adults (i.e. those with larger parents) - partial brood loss and fledging sex ratios did not vary with mid-parent size. Given no apparent disadvantage to large size for males either as adults or as nestlings, this leaves only the period between fledging and adulthood during which natural selection might limit sexual size dimorphism, although other mechanisms might explain the failure to find a limit to male size.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)353-361
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2005


  • Agelaius phoeniceus
  • Body size
  • Natural selection
  • Sex ratios
  • Sexual selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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