Beauty in the right eye of the beholder – finch chooses better mates with its right eye

By Ed Yong | October 2, 2012 7:00 pm

It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that’s only half-true for the Gouldian finch. Jennifer Templeton from Knox College, Illinois has found that these beautiful birds only display their famous fussiness over mates if they’re looking with their right eye. If the right is shut, and the left eye is open, the birds have more catholic tastes. As Templeton writes, “Beauty, therefore, is in the right eye of the beholder for these songbirds.”

The Gouldian finch, found in northern Australia, looks like a bird painted by Gauguin. Its palette includes a purple chest, yellow belly, green wings and cyan highlights. But it’s the head that really matters. They come in red or black (there’s a very rare yellow variant too, but we can ignore that here), and they strongly prefer to mate with partners of their own colours. This isn’t abstract fussiness – genetic incompatibilities between the black-heads and red-heads mean that their offspring are often infertile and feeble. Indeed, these two variants could be well on the way to becoming separate species.

Red and black finches are so easy to tell apart that scientists could be forgiven for neglecting how they do so. But Templeton suspected that the act of choosing a mate was more complicated that anyone had thought.

Another type of finch – the zebra finch – provided a clue. The males prefer to watch their intended females with their right eye. The right eye feeds information to the left half of the bird’s brain, and there the asymmetries continue. Genes that are switched on when neurons fire tend to be more active in the left half of a courting zebra finch’s brain than the right half. Maybe the left brain, and thus the right eye, dominates the selection of mates.

Templeton tested this idea with Gouldian finches. She covered the left or right eyes of black males (who show the strongest preferences for their own colours) and presented them with a choice of potential mates. If they could see through both eyes, or just the right one, they spent more time staring at black females than other finches. If they could only see through their left eye, this preference disappeared. Likewise, males were more likely to serenade black females, but only if they could see with their right eye.

There are many examples of “lateralised” mental skills – those that are dominated by one half of the brain (although beware silly right-brain-left-brain myths). But this is the first example of a lateralisation of mate choice. “No one has documented this bias in Gouldian Finches before because it is very difficult to observe biased eye use in wild birds,” says Templeton.

Other scientists have suggested that in many birds, the left half of the brain may be better at distinguishing between members of the same species. By favouring their right eye, it’s possible that the Gouldian finches make better decisions about whom to mate with – decisions that can have a dramatic impact on the fate of their descendants.

But Leah Williams from Liverpool John Moores University, who studies Gouldian finches, would like to have seen the same study done with red males too. In her previous work, she showed that the two types behave differently – the black finches are bolder and take more risks while the red ones are more aggressive.

“It would also be interesting to see if females have this visual mate choice lateralization,” Williams adds. Females choose males based on traits such as the vibrancy of their blue collars, and the length of their tails. Perhaps they also favour one eye when assessing these traits.

Reference: Templeton, Mountjoy, Pryke & Griffith. 2012. In the eye of the beholder: visual mate choice lateralization in a polymorphic songbird. Biology Letters

Imageby Sarah Pryke

More on Gouldian finches: Unattractive partners are stressful for choosy birds

Comments (15)

  1. Pete in NZ

    Someone who keeps chickens told me that birds tend to evaluate threats with one eye (left, I think) and look at their food with the other eye.
    Has anyone else experienced this or is it bollocks?

  2. Cargo

    @pete I’m fairly certain that is possibly a bit of bollox.
    Many lateral eyed animals have dual foveas set at different focal lengths and sensitivities for food/prey and predator detection (not raptors as it tends to be in lateral eyed animals like pigeons and rabbits) Check out the work of people like Martin, Hodos, Hess e.g. http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/avc/dittrich/discrim.htm . Though my PhD was on this area it was a LONG time ago, so I’m happy to be corrected if they have now found behavioural preferences in other avian species.
    The problem with observational anecdote is it is heavily susceptible to confirmation bias. ;)

  3. Yes, Lesley Rogers and colleagues showed this in young chickens in their Biology Letters publication:
    ‘Advantages of having a lateralized brain’.

  4. So no corpus callosum in birds then? Fascinating. Today I learn the answer to a question I never even thought to ask. Though now I’m curious as to whether birds can be left-handed (left-winged?) and if this would reverse their brains’ division of labor.

  5. Parrots can be left- or right-footed. Check out Brown & Magat’s 2011 Biology Letters paper entitled:
    Cerebral lateralization determines hand preferences in Australian parrots. Not sure about the division of labor, but I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that right-footed parrots have better vocal mimicry abilities.

  6. Pete in NZ

    Thanks for that @Cargo and @Jennifer – I’ll try to keep in mind the maxim that any neat and tidy explanation is to be immediately suspected..

  7. davem

    Birds detect magnetic fields in their right eyes – is there some connection?

  8. It would be nice to know the magnitude of the effect. This is one of the most important things a reader needs to know about any experimental result. In this case, you only say that the birds stared at black-headed females longer when they had the use of the right eye than when they did not. Was it 2x longer? 3x longer? 0.001% longer? It makes a great deal of difference to the interpretation. Thanks in advance. (Note that this is an entirely different question than the statistical significance of the result; it is fair to assume that since the article was published, the results were statistically significant.)

  9. Gordon

    Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, unfortunately the rest of the party is in the stomach of the beholder. :p

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist. (Dungeons and Dragons joke for those of you whom don’t play the game.)

  10. In response to Lou Jost: Based on the least-squares means of arcsine-transformed proportions of viewing times (i.e. the data that were used in the GLMM analyses), black-headed males stared at the black-headed females ~2x longer when the right eye was available (right eye: 19.79; both eyes: 21.03) compared to when it was not (left eye: 10.78).

  11. And just to clarify for Pete, Rogers et al. showed that young chickens incubated in the light do use the right eye for foraging and the left eye for looking out for predators. So, at least in that paper, not bollocks…

  12. Jennifer, thanks for that response. So you transformed the times and then took the means. Did you then do the inverse transform on those means to get back to actual viewing times, and does your 2x figure refer to that? That is the real magnitude of the effect, the thing that seems most important to know. Or does your 2x figure refer to the ratio of the arcsin-transformed viewing times? That would be much less interesting; any nonlinear transformation makes the magnitudes of the differences essentially uninterpretable, though more amenable to statistical analyses.

  13. Quick note – many thanks to Jennifer for engaging with questions in the comments. Always appreciated.

  14. Yes, thanks Jennifer! Nice work.

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