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Lovely fairy-wren Malurus amabilis

Elaborate traits, such as plumage colours or complex song are generally regarded as male traits and assumed to have evolved mainly as a result of sexual selection. However, such traits are not expressed solely in males, though female ornaments have often been regarded as rare, unusual or as genetically correlated by-products of selection for ornaments in males. A traditional focus on male ornamental traits means that comparatively little is known about the role of such traits in females. Understanding how trade-offs and selective pressures shape female ornamentation is crucial to advance our understanding on trait evolution and female and male similarities and differences.

In this project we are investigating the form and function of female and male plumage colour and song in the lovely fairy-wren (Malurus amabilis), in which females and males are both highly colourful and vocal. The lovely fairy-wren is a tropical species endemic to the Cape York Peninsula, in Far North Queensland, Australia.

This research project employs field observations, behavioural experiments, and genetic analysis, to test the adaptive function(s) and mechanisms for the evolution of female and male plumage colour and song. We are explicitly contrasting females and males so that we can address, in the light of the abundant work done on males, how females may or may not differ from males.

Overall this project contributes to an improved understanding of the behaviour and breeding biology of the lovely fairy-wren, as well as of the form and function of plumage colouration and song in females and males of this species. It also highlights the importance of studying and considering the fundamental differences in females and males, a necessary step for a realistic understanding of ornament expression, and contributes to the ongoing discussion on the evolution of elaborate female signal traits.

Researcher profile:
Much of the work described above was conducted as part of Ana Leitão’s PhD entitled “The function of female and males ornaments in the Lovely fairy-wren”. More information about Ana can be found on the People page.

More information about this research can be found in these publications:

Leitão, AV, Hall, ML, Delhey, K, & Mulder, RA (2019). Female and male plumage colour signals aggression in a dichromatic tropical songbird. Animal Behaviour, 150, 285-301. Full text

Cain, KE, Hall, ML, Medina, I, Leitao, AV, Delhey, K, Brouwer, L, Peters, A, Pruett-Jones, S, Webster, MS, Langmore, NA & Mulder, RA (2019). Conspicuous plumage does not increase predation risk: A continent-wide test using 3D printed model songbirds. American Naturalist, 193(3), 359-372. Full text

Leitão, AV, Hall, ML, Venables, B, & Mulder, RA (2019). Ecology and breeding biology of a tropical bird, the Lovely Fairy-Wren (Malurus amabilis). Emu, 119(1), 1-13. Full Text

Photo: Ana Leitão

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