Carotenoid-based plumage coloration reflects feather corticosterone levels in male house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)

Á Z. Lendvai, M. Giraudeau, J. Németh, V. Bakó, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

122 Scopus citations


Indicator models of sexual selection predict that exaggerated traits communicate information about sender condition or quality to conspecific receivers. Environmental challenges have often been considered as one such condition that could be encoded in an ornamental trait, and there is now extensive evidence showing how different stressors (e.g., nutritional, parasitological, and environmental) impact sexual signal elaboration. One of the primary means of assessing stress is by quantifying glucocorticoid (corticosterone or cortisol (CORT)) levels. For many ornaments, CORT impairs trait expression; however, the evidence is limited and mixed for one of the classic honest signals in animals, ornamental carotenoid coloration. In a model species for studies of carotenoid ornamentation (the house finch, Haemorhous mexicanus), we examined the relationship between male plumage redness and feather CORT levels, which serve as an integrated measure of hormone concentration during feather growth. We measured CORT in both tail (melanin-containing) and breast (carotenoid-containing) feathers and found that CORT levels were not different between body regions, but they were negatively correlated with plumage hue, with redder birds having more CORT in feathers. Despite opposing traditional views on stress and ornamentation, our results actually corroborate three other studies showing positive relationships between carotenoid coloration and CORT levels. Though the molecular mechanisms underlying such a relationship are still unclear, our results suggest that CORT should not be considered as a simple indicator of individual quality but rather as a mediator of complex allocation decisions or signals of metabolic activity that could link up with more elaborate expression of ornamental traits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1817-1824
Number of pages8
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • Honest signaling
  • Plumage ornamentation
  • Sexual selection
  • Stress hormones
  • Stress response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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