Extrinsic and intrinsic factors influence fitness in an avian hybrid zone


The effects of hybridization on evolutionary processes are primarily determined by the differential between hybrid and parental species fitness. Assessing the impacts of hybridization can be challenging, however, as determining the relationship between individual fitness and the extent of introgression in wild populations is difficult. We evaluated the fitness consequences of hybridization for pure and hybrid females in a hybrid zone between two tidal marsh birds, the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus), a salt marsh obligate, and Nelson's sparrow (A. nelsoni), which has a broader ecological niche and a much younger evolutionary association with salt marshes. Biotic stressors associated with nesting in tidal environments suggest an important role for differential adaptation in shaping hybrid zone dynamics, with saltmarsh sparrows predicted to be better adapted to nesting in salt marshes. We collected DNA samples from adults (n = 394) and nestlings (n = 431) to determine the extent of introgression using 12 microsatellite loci and tested for the influence of extrinsic (nest placement) and intrinsic (genotype) factors on female reproductive success. We monitored nests (n = 228), collected data on reproductive output, and estimated daily nest survival rates using female genotype and nest characteristics as covariates. To test for reduced survival of hybrid females, we also used capture data to assess the distribution of admixed male and female individuals across age classes. Reproductive success of females varied by genotypic class, but hybrids did not have intermediate success as predicted. Instead, we found that pure Nelson's sparrows had, on average, 33% lower hatching success than any other genotype, whereas F1/F2 hybrids, backcrossed Nelson's sparrows, and backcrossed and pure saltmarsh sparrows all had similar hatching success. We found no effect of genotype or nest placement on daily nest survival probabilities. However, hybrid individuals with a higher proportion of saltmarsh sparrow alleles exhibit nesting behaviours better suited to nesting successfully in tidal marshes. Further, while the proportion of F1/F2 individuals was similar between nestling and adult males, we found that the proportion of F1/F2 individuals was 2.3 times greater in nestling females compared with adult females, indicating reduced survival of F1 females. We conclude that differences in reproductive success among pure and admixed individuals coupled with intrinsic mechanisms (reduced survival in F1 females) shape hybrid zone dynamics in this system.

Publication Date


Journal Title

Biological Journal of the Linnean Society



Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Scientific Contribution Number


Document Type



© 2016 The Linnean Society of London