Background: Females often express the same ornaments as males to a similar or lesser degree. Female ornaments can be adaptive, but little is known regarding their origins and mode of evolution. Current utility does not imply evolutionary causation, and therefore it is possible that female ornamentation evolved due to selection on females, as a correlated response to selection on males (sexual constraint), or a combination of both. We tested these ideas simulating simple models for the evolution of male and female correlated traits, and compared their predictions against the coloration of finches in the genus Carduelis.
Results: For carotenoid-based ornamental coloration, a model of sexual constraint on females fits the Carduelis data well. The two alternative models (sexual constraint on males, and mutual constraint) were rejected as causing the similarities in carotenoid coloration between males and females. For melanin coloration, the correlation between the sexes was weaker, indicating that males and females evolved independently to a greater extent.
Conclusions: This indicates that sexual constraint on females was an important mechanism for the evolution of ornamental carotenoid coloration in females, but less so for melanin coloration. This does not mean that female carotenoid coloration is non-adaptive or maladaptive, because sexual dichromatism could evolve if it were maladaptive. It suggests, however, that most evolution of female carotenoid coloration was male-driven and, when adaptive, may not be an adaptation stricto sensu.