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Origin and maintenance of mechanosensory feather ornaments

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Mechanosensory use is a seldom-mentioned function for feather ornaments, yet recent experimental evidence showed that the elaborate facial plumes of crevice-dwelling whiskered auklets, Aethia pygmaea, have just such a sensory role. Here we explored the evolutionary patterns of mechanosensory function of similar facial feather ornaments in related species. In an experimental chamber (maze) devoid of visible light, crested auklets, A. cristatella, a close relative of the whiskered auklet, showed an increase in head bumps (262%) after trial flattening of their forehead crest. The frequency of head bumps in the absence of the crest was positively correlated with the natural crest length of the crested auklet. There was no correlation between crest length and head bumps when we added an artificial crest to least auklets, A. pusilla, which do not have a natural crest. Thus, only the ornamented Aethia species that breed in deep-crevice appear to have detectable mechanosensory ability. A pairwise analysis across all nonpasserine bird families further revealed a greater frequency of elongated facial plumes in birds that live in complex habitats and are active during low light conditions. We suggest that selective pressure enforced by complex habitats may trigger facial feather exaggeration for mechanosensory use. Once the primordial sensory structures evolved, sexual and other social selection processes could act on these traits and lead towards further exaggeration.
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