Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




MacDougall-Shackleton, Elizabeth A.


In recent years, sexual selection theory has redefined genetic quality to consider not only additive genetic effects on fitness but also non-additive genetic effects, such as heterozygote advantage or disadvantage. In jawed vertebrates, the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) gene family has been shown to exhibit both additive and non-additive genetic effects on fitness. MHC gene products are involved in initiating adaptive immune responses, and MHC genotype determines the range of pathogens to which an individual can respond. Therefore, parasite-mediated selection at MHC may favour locally-adapted, rare, or particular combination of alleles. Because heterozygote advantage at MHC is widespread, sexual selection should favour mechanisms by which individuals assess the MHC genotypes of potential mates, and mate non-randomly. Studies exploring the role of MHC in immunity and sexual selection are widespread amongst mammals and fish, but in birds (especially songbirds) there is relatively scant evidence for MHC-mediated mating and the mechanism by which this might be accomplished remains unknown. First, I assessed differentiation at MHC class I and II that might underlie locally-good gene effects in two populations of song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) previously shown to exhibit higher resistance to sympatric malaria (Plasmodium) strains. I found no population differentiation, suggesting no locally-good gene effects at MHC, but individuals with higher class I diversity were less likely to be infected when experimentally inoculated with Plasmodium. Second, I explored whether song sparrows convey information on MHC class II genotype through chemical (preen oil) or auditory (birdsong) cues. Pairwise similarity at MHC was related to pairwise similarity of preen oil chemical composition, but not to pairwise similarity in song repertoire content. Song repertoire size, a sexually selected trait in this species, was nonlinearly related to MHC diversity, such that males with intermediate MHC diversity sang the most songs. Finally, to investigate MHC-mediated mate choice, I compared MHC similarity of socially mated pairs of free-living song sparrows to random expectations. Contrary to my prediction of MHC-disassortative mating, social pairs were more similar at MHC than expected by chance. This work emphasizes the importance of considering mate choice in the context of fitness effects at MHC.