Melanin, carotenoid and structural plumage ornaments: Information content and role in great tits Parus major

Gergely Hegyi, Beáta Szigeti, János Török, Marcel Eens

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The importance of plumage colour as an indicator of individual quality and the basis of sexual selection has long been recognized. Of the three generally distinguished classes of plumage colours, melanin-based ornaments are traditionally considered to provide less reliable information than carotenoid-based traits. However, the role of structural ornaments in multiple signalling systems has rarely been examined, and no study has compared the information content and role of the three ornament types simultaneously. Here we investigated three plumage ornaments in great tits Parus major: the size of the melanin-based breast stripe, the carotenoid-based colour of the yellow breast and the structurally based reflectance properties of the black crown. We worked on both the mechanistic and the functional levels. First, we assessed the dependence of ornaments on body condition during moult using ptilochronology. Second, we estimated assortative mating for these traits, as a measure of mutual sexual selection. Only the spectral attributes of crown feathers correlated with body condition during moult. However, breast stripe size was related to age, while the brightness of the yellow breast indicated body size. Relative crown ultraviolet reflectance was much higher in males than in females. Assortative mating was strongest for crown ultraviolet reflectance, but composite measures suggest that a system of multiple sexually selected traits with different information content may work in this population. These data support the accumulating evidence that the condition-dependence of melanin and carotenoid coloration is not qualitatively different. They also suggest that more research should target the reflectance properties of dark plumage areas in general, and ultraviolet crown ornamentation in tits in particular.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)698-708
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1 2007


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology

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