Physiological correlates of urbanization in a desert songbird

Mathieu Giraudeau, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Rapid worldwide urbanization is creating novel environments to which animals must adapt, a topic of growing interest for biologists. Studies of how organisms are affected by cities historically centered on large-scale censusing of populations, but recent investigations have considered finer-scaled, urban-rural differences among individuals and species in their behavior, morphology, and physiology, specifically as they relate to urban stress. A number of factors (e.g., corticosterone (CORT)-related stress response) may contribute to the degree of stress experienced by animals living under urban versus natural conditions, but several physiological variables have yet to be considered together in a large-scale assessment. Here, in a widespread species of desert passerine (the house finch, Haemorhous mexicanus), we quantified variation in plasma oxidative stress, plasma concentrations of vitamins and carotenoids, and body-mass of males in three successive seasons (winter, spring, and late summer/early fall) along an urban-rural gradient in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. We found that degree of urbanization was: (1) negatively related to circulating vitamin A concentrations in winter, (2) positively correlated with body-mass during spring, and (3) negatively associated with plasma concentrations of two carotenoids: zeaxanthin (during breeding) and 3-hydroxy-echinenone (3HE) (during molting). The striking link between 3HE levels and urbanization is consistent with previous research showing that urban songbirds have lower carotenoid levels and faded plumage; our finding is the first to implicate specific effects on a metabolically derived carotenoid for coloration. The fact that we observed only season-specific links between urbanization and indicators of quality in finches suggests that (at least for these metrics) there are no strong, lasting urban pressures imposed on finch physiology over the year. Interestingly, we found that a metric of plasma oxidative stress (lipid peroxidation) was positively correlated with levels of two carotenoids (lutein during breeding and 3HE during molting), which is consistent with a prior study of ours showing that finches with redder plumage deposit higher levels of CORT in their feathers; taken together, our studies suggest complex associations between carotenoids and stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)622-632
Number of pages11
JournalIntegrative and comparative biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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