Size dimorphism and avian-perceived sexual dichromatism in a New Zealand endemic bird, the whitehead Mohoua albicilla

Branislav Igic, Nora Leuschner, Kevin A. Parker, Stefanie M.H. Ismar, Brian J. Gill, Tim G. Lovegrove, Craig D. Millar, Mark E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sex differences in behavior, morphology, and physiology are common in animals. In many bird species, differences in the feather colors of the sexes are apparent when judged by human observers and using physical measures of plumage reflectance, cryptic (to human) plumage dichromatism has also been detected in several additional avian lineages. However, it remains to be confirmed in almost all species whether sexual dichromatism is perceivable by individuals of the studied species. This latter step is essential because it allows the evaluation of alternative hypotheses regarding the signaling and communication functions of plumage variation. We applied perceptual modeling of the avian visual system for the first time to an endemic New Zealand bird to provide evidence of subtle but consistent sexual dichromatism in the whitehead, Mohoua albicilla. Molecular sexing techniques were also used in this species to confirm the extent of the sexual size dimorphism in plumage and body mass. Despite the small sample sizes, we now validate previous reports based on human perception that in male whiteheads head and chest feathers are physically brighter than in females. We further suggest that the extent of sexual plumage dichromatism is pronounced and can be perceived by these birds. In contrast, although sexual dimorphism was also detectable in the mass among the DNA-sexed individuals, it was found to be less extensive than previously thought. Sexual size dimorphism and intraspecifically perceivable plumage dichromatism represent reliable traits that differ between female and male whiteheads. These traits, in turn, may contribute to honest communication displays within the complex social recognition systems of communally breeding whitehead and other group-breeding taxa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)697-704
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Morphology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Complex social system
  • Sexual dichromatism
  • Sexual selection
  • Visual modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Developmental Biology


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