JUNE 24, 2020
by Kelsey Simpkins, University of Colorado at Boulder
Barn swallows live almost everywhere on the planet, recognizable by their forked tail and agility in the air. Yet while they share these characteristics, these little birds often look slightly different in each place they live—with some so distinct they're splitting off to become new species.
Researchers at CU Boulder think that local parasites are influencing why barn swallows in Europe, the Middle East and Colorado are choosing their mates differently. Their new research, published in Evolution, finds that these parasites could be playing an important role in changing the traits displayed to attract mates early in the process of the creation of new species.
"It's possible we haven't appreciated just how important parasites might be in shaping the evolution of their hosts," said lead author Amanda Hund, who conducted the research as a doctoral candidate in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department.
Every organism, including humans, has co-evolved with a unique community of parasites, that by definition live at the expense of their host. While they are not beneficial to us like many other microbes are, parasites have shaped our own immune system, pheromones and even our mate selection, previous research has shown.
Hund set out to characterize as many parasite communities as she could in barn swallows, to find out if they could be influencing their mate selection, and therefore the male birds' physical traits and the creation of new species.