There has been considerable debate in the study of hybrid zones as to whether hybrids may be superior to parental types within the area of contact (bounded hybrid superiority). In birds, naturally occurring hybridization is relatively common, and hybridization within this group always involves mate choice. If hybrids are superior, females choosing heterospecific mates should be expected to show higher fitness under the conditions prevalent in the hybrid zone. Hybrid superiority under these circumstances would reduce reinforcement and thereby help to maintain the hybrid zone. To examine this issue, we studied reproductive performances of hybrids and parental species of gulls (Larus occidentalis and Larus glaucescens) at two colonies within a linear hybrid zone along the west coast of the United States. This hybrid zone contains predominantly gulls of intermediate phenotype. Previous studies indicated that hybrids were superior to one or both parental types, but provided no data on possible mechanisms that underlie this hybrid superiority. Using a hybrid index designed specifically for these species, we identified to phenotype more than 300 individuals associated with nests, including both individual males and females within 73 pairs in the central portion of the hybrid zone and 74 pairs in the northern portion of the hybrid zone. There was little evidence of assortative mating, and what little there was resulted solely because of pairings within intergrades. In the central hybrid zone, females paired with hybrid males produced larger clutches and hatched and fledged more chicks compared with females paired to western gull males. This was a result of heavy predation on eggs in sand habitat, where male western gulls established territories. In contrast, many hybrid males established territories in vegetated cover that was less vulnerable to predation. In the northern part of the hybrid zone, clutch size did not differ among pair categories, however, there were differences in hatching and fledging success, with females paired to hybrid males showing better success compared to females paired to glaucous-winged gull males. Hybrids showed better hatching and fledging success in the north because hybrids are more like western gulls than glaucous-winged gulls in foraging behavior, taking a higher percentage of fish in their diet, which enhances chick growth and survival. This is believed to be the first documentation of bounded hybrid superiority that delineates the mechanisms that underlie hybrid superiority.
Corresponding Editor: S. Edwards