Past or present? Relative contributions of developmental and adult conditions to adult immune function and coloration in mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos)

Michael W. Butler, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Developmental conditions affect adult physiological processes and phenotypic traits, including those associated with both survival and reproduction. Carotenoids are molecules that generate sexually attractive coloration, and these pigments are acquired throughout life and can affect antioxidant capacity and immunocompetence of young and old animals. However, few studies have tracked carotenoid status and condition during development and into adulthood to understand how ontogeny affects later-life health and coloration of both males and females. We reared male and female mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) from hatch to adulthood, measured circulating carotenoid titers and body condition (i.e., size-adjusted body mass) throughout development, and assessed adult immune function and integumentary carotenoid-based beak and foot coloration. We found that adult immune function (wing web swelling response to phytohemagglutinin; PHA) in males was positively correlated with body condition during the growth period of development, rather than adult condition, and similarly that both male and female beak coloration was associated with developmental, rather than adult, body condition. We also found associations between coloration and health during adulthood; males with more carotenoid-rich beaks (a sexually attractive feature) tended to have a more robust adult PHA response and a greater antibody response to a novel antigen, while females with less carotenoid-rich beaks had greater antibody responsiveness at adulthood. In addition, male beak color changed over the course of the 24-h PHA test in proportion to the degree of PHA swelling. However, intensity of foot coloration (a trait of unknown sexual significance) was not associated with any condition, carotenoid, or immune metric for males or females. Taken together, our findings implicate key developmental components to the expression of both survival- and reproduction-related traits at adulthood, but that for a dynamic trait like beak color, there are also important adult conditions that can alter signal expression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)551-563
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Comparative Physiology B: Biochemical, Systemic, and Environmental Physiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Body condition
  • Carotenoid
  • Coloration
  • Development
  • Immune function
  • Ontogeny
  • Sexual maturity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Endocrinology


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