Bird tails are extraordinarily variable in length and functionality. In some species, males have evolved exaggeratedly long tails as a result of sexual selection. Changes in tail length should be associated with changes in feather structure. The study of the evolution of feather structure in bird tails could give insight to understand the causes and means of evolution in relation to processes of sexual selection. In theory, three possible means of tail length evolution in relation to structural components might be expected: (1) a positive relationship between the increase in length and size of structural components maintaining the mechanical properties of the feather; (2) no relationship; that is, enlarging feather length without changes in the structural components; and (3) a negative relationship; that is, enlarging feather length by reducing structural components. These hypotheses were tested using phylogenetic analyses to examine changes in both degree of exaggeration in tail length and structural characteristics of tail feathers (rachis width and density of barbs) in 36 species, including those dimorphic and nondimorphic in tail length. The degree of sexual dimorphism in tail length was negatively correlated with both rachis width and density of barbs in males but not in females. Reinforcing this result, we found that dimorphism in tail length was negatively associated with dimorphism in tail feather structure (rachis width and density of barbs). These results support the third hypothesis, in which the evolution of long feathers occurs at the expense of making them simpler and therefore less costly to produce. However, we do not know the effects of enfeeblement on the costs of bearing. If the total costs increased, the enfeeblement of feathers could be explained as a reinforcement of the honesty of the signal. Alternatively, if total costs were reduced, the strategy could be explained by cheating processes. The study of female preferences for fragile tail feathers is essential to test these two hypotheses. Preferences for fragile tails would support the evolution of reinforcement of honesty, whereas female indifference would indicate the existence of cheating in certain stages of the evolutionary process.
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Vol. 57 • No. 2