Feather coloration in museum specimens is related to feather corticosterone

Publication Title

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Document Type


Department or Program


Publication Date



Carotenoids, Coloration, Feather corticosterone, Museum specimens, Sexual selection, Structural color


Colorful ornaments in birds are often sexually selected signals of quality, and variation in ornament expression may be mediated by physiological stress through the secretion of corticosterone. However, testing for links between ornamentation and corticosterone often requires sampling live animals, and such physiological measures may not be matched in the time span in which they were sampled (e. g., very dynamic plasma corticosterone vs. plumage coloration, which is relatively static). Here, we use museum specimens to test for a link between the color of a sexual ornament and feather corticosterone at the time of ornament formation. In red-winged blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus, carotenoid-based epaulets appear to be important in male-male social interactions, territory maintenance, and female choice. We measured reflectance spectra of adult male epaulets and plucked adjacent feathers for corticosterone analysis via radioimmunoassay. We controlled for differences in the number of mates, specimen age, and geography by selecting only males with one mate and only birds collected in Florida during a 3-year period. Epaulet hue and red chroma did not vary with feather corticosterone, but males whose epaulets scored high for mean brightness and red brightness had significantly lower corticosterone than males with low brightness scores. This correlation with brightness but not hue or chroma is consistent with an effect of corticosterone (CORT) on feather microstructure, with elevated CORT leading to lower reflectance of white light from the keratin matrix surrounding the carotenoid pigments. © 2012 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.


Original version is available from the publisher at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-012-1454-9

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Copyright © 2012, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg, part of Springer Nature.