Background: The evolutionary interests of males and females rarely coincide (sexual conflict), and these conflicting interests influence morphology, behavior and speciation in various organisms. We examined consequences of variation in sexual conflict in two closely-related passerine birds with contrasting breeding systems: the Eurasian penduline tit Remiz pendulinus (EPT) exhibiting a highly polygamous breeding system with sexually antagonistic interests over parental care, and the socially monogamous Cape penduline tit Anthoscopus minutus (CPT). We derived four a priori predictions from sexual conflict theory and tested these using data collected in Central Europe (EPT) and South Africa (CPT). Firstly, we predicted that EPTs exhibit more sexually dimorphic plumage than CPTs due to more intense sexual selection. Secondly, we expected brighter EPT males to provide less care than duller males. Thirdly, since song is a sexually selected trait in many birds, male EPTs were expected to exhibit more complex songs than CPT males. Finally, intense sexual conflict in EPT was expected to lead to low nest attendance as an indication of sexually antagonistic interests, whereas we expected more cooperation between parents in CPT consistent with their socially monogamous breeding system.
Results: Consistent with our predictions EPTs exhibited greater sexual dimorphism in plumage and more complex song than CPTs, and brighter EPT males provided less care than duller ones. EPT parents attended the nest less frequently and less simultaneously than CPT parents.
Conclusions: These results are consistent with sexual conflict theory: species in which sexual conflict is more manifested (EPT) exhibited a stronger sexual dimorphism and more elaborated sexually selected traits than species with less intense sexual conflict (CPT). Our results are also consistent with the notion that EPTs attempt to force their partner to work harder as expected under sexual conflict: each member of the breeding pair attempts to shift the costs of care to the other parent. More brightly colored males benefit more from desertion than dull ones, because they are more likely to remate with a new female. Taken together, the comparison between two closely related species with contrasting breeding systems suggest that sexual conflict over care has influenced the evolution of behavior and morphology in penduline tits.