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Eumelanin levels in rufous feathers explain plasma testosterone levels and survival in swallows

30 Jan 2019

The minor pigment could provide information to the signal receivers. We found that, during severe winter weathers, survivors had a proportionally smaller amount of eumelanin pigment in pheomelanic feathers of birds than that in nonsurvivors, but no detectable difference was found in the pheomelanin pigment itself.

Abstract

Pigment‐based plumage coloration and its physiological properties have attracted many researchers to explain the evolution of such ornamental traits. These studies, however, assume the functional importance of the predominant pigment while ignoring that of other minor pigments, and few studies have focused on the composition of these pigments. Using the pheomelanin‐based plumage in two swallow species, we studied the allocation of two pigments (the predominant pigment, pheomelanin, and the minor pigment, eumelanin) in relation to physiological properties and viability in populations under a natural and sexual selection. This is indispensable for studying the evolution of pheomelanin‐based plumage coloration. Pheomelanin and eumelanin share the same pathway only during their initial stages of development, which can be a key to unravel the functional importance of pigment allocation and thus of plumage coloration. Using the barn swallow, Hirundo rustica, a migratory species, we found that plasma testosterone levels increased with increasing the proportion of eumelanin pigments compared with pheomelanin pigments, but not with the amount of pheomelanin pigments, during the mating period. In the Pacific swallow Hirundo tahitica, a nonmigratory congener, we found that, during severe winter weathers, survivors had a proportionally smaller amount of eumelanin pigments compared with pheomelanin pigments than that in nonsurvivors, but no detectable difference was found in the pheomelanin pigmentation itself. These results indicated that a minor pigment, eumelanin, matters at least in some physiological measures and viability. Because the major pigment, pheomelanin, has its own physiological properties, a combination of major and minor pigments provides multiple information to the signal receivers, potentially enhancing the signaling function of pheomelanic coloration and its diversification across habitats.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Ecology and Evolution