Recent experimental studies involving the manipulation of sexual traits have demonstrated that sexual trait expression feeds back to testosterone levels, perhaps via social interactions, reinforcing the linkage between sexual trait expression and testosterone levels during the mating period. However, information on this reinforcement under the natural variation of sexual traits remains limited. Using Japanese barn swallows, Hirundo rustica gutturalis, in which extra-pair paternity is quite rare (< 3%), we studied the relationship between plasma testosterone level and a male sexual trait, throat patch size, during the mating and incubation periods. Given the importance of social interaction, we predicted that this relationship should be intense during the mating period, but not the incubation period, due to reduced social interaction during the latter. We found low plasma testosterone levels during the incubation period compared with those in the mating period, and plasma testosterone levels were significantly positively related to throat patch area during the mating period, but not the incubation period. Similar relationships were found in another sexual trait, the size of white tail spots. During the incubation period, body condition, instead of male sexual trait expression, was negatively related to plasma testosterone level, indicating that an intrinsic link, rather than reinforcement, is important during this period. These relationships are consistent with the hypothesis that social interaction reinforces the relationship between sexual traits and plasma testosterone levels. The current study provides evidence for a highly variable relationship between testosterone and ornamentation across breeding periods in the natural variation of sexual traits.
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Vol. 34 • No. 4