Secondary sexual characters have been hypothesized to be particularly susceptible to the deleterious effects of mutation because the expression of such characters is usually influenced by many more metabolic pathways than are ordinary morphological characters. We tested this hypothesis using the elevated mutation rates in the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) of the Chernobyl region of Ukraine as a model system. A great deal is known about the relative importance of different characters for male mating success in this species. The importance of phenotypic characters for male mating success was quantified based on a long-term study of a Danish breeding population, by expressing phenotypic differences between mated and unmated males as the difference between log-transformed mean values. For field samples from Ukraine we likewise expressed the difference in male phenotype between individuals living in a relatively uncontaminated area and individuals from the Chernobyl region as the difference between log-transformed mean values. The standardized difference in male phenotype between the two regions in Ukraine for the 41 different characters was strongly positively correlated with the standardized difference in male phenotype between mated and unmated males from Denmark. The standardized difference in male phenotype between the two regions in Ukraine was significantly positively associated with sexual size dimorphism. However, the standardized difference in male phenotype between mated and unmated males was a much better predictor of standardized difference in male phenotype between the two regions in Ukraine than was the standardized difference in sexual size dimorphism, expressed as the difference between log-transformed mean values for males and females. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that traits most important for sexual selection are particularly susceptible to the effects of deleterious mutations.
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