Why did the male plover turn into a night owl?

Nature is full of trade-offs. To excel at one thing, often means you’ll end up sucking at another. Sad but true.

Take ornamentation for example. Flashy, decorative adornments that species parade to lure in a member of the opposite sex work well when finding a mate, but they also have their drawbacks. In a world full of predators searching for their next meal, being adorned like lady gaga might just make you stand out a wee bit.

Lady gaga's outfits look outstanding, but you wouldn't want to look like that when surrounded by lions and tigers and bears (oh my).
Lady gaga’s outfits look outstanding, but you wouldn’t want to look like that when surrounded by lions and tigers and bears (……….oh my).

In our recent paper  in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, we found that’s the case for the adorable red-capped plover. This species displays sexual dichromatism. That is, one sex displays ornamentation and the other does not. As is often the case in birds, the sex that has the showy plumage is the male. These guys have a bright red head, and the females love it.

A male (right) and a female (left) red capped plover.
A male (right) and a female (left) red capped plover. Photo from barwonbluff.com.au

Sadly, this red head acts like a beacon for visual predators, threatening not only the male plover, but also exposing their precious eggs to an enhanced risk of predation. You see, male plovers are pretty good dads. They do their fair share in terms of helping around the nest. They incubate their eggs around half of the time, with the other half being tended to by the female.

But their caring nature is undermined by their showiness. Using models of red capped plovers, we found that when males attended the nest during the day, there was a huge increase in the probability that eggs within that nest would be preyed upon by diurnal visual predators (largely ravens).

plover

But nature has a way of findings solutions too. Red capped plover’s love their red heads, and they weren’t going to give them up without a fight. If diurnal predators were the issue, then there’s only one option: night shift. We found that male and female plovers had a strict schedule for when they would attend the nest, with males attending the nest mostly at night when those diurnal, visual predators were asleep, whereas the less conspicuous females attended the nest during the day.

plover2

And so, with a little bit of flexibility, the red capped plover shows it is possible to look good and be a caring, sharing dad.

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