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Title: Change in beak overhangs of cliff swallows over 40 years: Partly a response to parasites?
Some birds exhibit a maxillary overhang, in which the tip of the upper beak projects beyond the lower mandible and may curve downward. The overhang is thought to help control ectoparasites on the feathers. Little is known about the extent to which the maxillary overhang varies spatially or temporally within populations of the same species. The colonial cliff swallow ( Petrochelidon pyrrhonota ) has relatively recently shifted to almost exclusive use of artificial structures such as bridges and highway culverts for nesting and consequently has been exposed to higher levels of parasitism than on its ancestral cliff nesting sites. We examined whether increased ectoparasitism may have favored recent changes in the extent of the maxillary overhang. Using a specimen collection of cliff swallows from western Nebraska, USA, spanning 40 years and field data on live birds, we found that the extent of the maxillary overhang increased across years in a nonlinear way, peaking in the late 2000’s, and varied inversely with cliff swallow colony size for unknown reasons. The number of fleas on nestling cliff swallows declined in general over this period. Those birds with perceptible overhangs had fewer swallow bugs on the outside of their nest, but they did more » not have higher nesting success than birds with no overhangs. The intraspecific variation in the maxillary overhang in cliff swallows was partly consistent with it having a functional role in combatting ectoparasites. The temporal increase in the extent of the overhang may be a response by cliff swallows to their relatively recent increased exposure to parasitism. Our results demonstrate that this avian morphological trait can change rapidly over time. « less
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Ruiz-Rodriguez, Magdalena
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National Science Foundation
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