The effect of capture-and-handling stress on carotenoid-based beak coloration in zebra finches

Kevin McGraw, Kristen Lee, Amir Lewin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Stress can have widespread effects on animal behaviors and phenotypes, including sexually selected traits. Ornamental colors have long been studied as honest signals of condition, but few studies have been conducted on how the physiological stress response (i. e., corticosterone (CORT) elevation) impacts color expression. We used a traditional capture-and-restraint technique to examine the effect of repeated handling stress on carotenoid-dependent beak coloration in male and female zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). Birds subjected to daily, 10-min handling treatments, which elevated circulating CORT levels, for a four-week period displayed deeper orange/red beak coloration than did control animals. Stressed males lost body mass during the experiment and marginally decreased in circulating carotenoid concentrations. Hence, handling stress may have reduced food intake or induced mobilization of body stores (i. e., fat) of carotenoids. In contrast to males, stressed females maintained orange beak color, while control females faded in color. This study highlights sex- and pigment-specific mechanisms by which stress may temporarily enhance the expression of sexual traits, but at the expense of other key fitness traits (e. g., body mass maintenance, reproduction).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)683-691
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2011


  • Body mass
  • Carotenoids
  • Corticosteroids
  • Sexual selection
  • Taeniopygia guttata

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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