Digit ratios have poor indicator value in a wild bird population

S. Ruuskanen, S. Helle, M. Ahola, F.C.A. Adamczyk, E. Möstl, T. Laaksonen

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Early androgen exposure is known to have longlasting effects on phenotype, behaviour and even fitness, but difficulties in measuring the exposure hinders the study of its importance in evolutionary context. Digit ratios have been highlighted as a potential easy-to-measure indicator of early steroid exposure, as they have been suggested to reflect steroid, mainly testosterone levels during prenatal development. However, evidence for digit ratios reflecting early steroid levels is weak, as experimental studies, especially in wild populations, are scarce. We studied the association between maternally derived yolk androgens and digit ratios (2D:4D, 2D:3D and 3D:4D) using both correlative data and a rather high level of experimental elevation of yolk androgens in a passerine bird, the pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca). We also examined whether digit ratios have indicator value in an evolutionary context by studying correlations between digit ratios and reproductive traits, secondary sexual traits and exploratory behaviour. We did not find any association between digit ratios and yolk androgen level either in correlative or experimental data. Digit ratios were neither related to any of the reproductive and secondary sexual traits or exploratory behaviour measured. There was, however, a sex difference in 2D:3D and 3D:4D of adult birds (due to second and fourth digits being shorter in females), which was not apparent in fledglings or captivity-raised juveniles. This suggests that either the sex difference may develop as late as during the sexual maturation for breeding. These results indicate that, in this species, digit ratios are not reliable markers of maternally derived yolk androgen exposure and that they bear little relevance as correlates of the adaptive traits we measured.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)983-994
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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