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Carotenoid-based colour expression is determined early in nestling life


Carotenoid-based colours are widespread in animals and are used as signals in intra- and interspecific communication. In nestling birds, the carotenoids used for feather pigmentation may derive via three pathways: (1) via maternal transfer to egg yolk; (2) via paternal feeds early after hatching when females are mainly brooding; or (3) via feeds from both parents later in nestling life. We analysed the relative importance of the proposed carotenoid sources in a field experiment on great tit nestlings (Parus major). In a within-brood design we supplemented nestlings with carotenoids shortly after hatching, later on in the nestling life, or with a placebo. We show that the carotenoid-based colour expression of nestlings is modified maximally during the first 6 days after hatching. It reveals that the observed variation in carotenoid-based coloration is based only on mechanisms acting during a short period of time in early nestling life. The experiment further suggests that paternally derived carotenoids are the most important determinants of nestling plumage colour.

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We thank Hoffmann-La Roche, Basel and Alfred Giger for kindly providing carotenoid and placebo beadlets, Kurt Bernhard for helpful advice, and Jean-Daniel Charrière and Peter Fluri for providing the bee larvae. We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant 31-53956.98 to H. Richner) and the Swiss Bundesamt für Bildung und Wissenschaft (grant BBW Nr. 01.0254 to P.S. Fitze). The experiment was conducted under a licence provided by the Ethical Committee of the Office of Agriculture of the Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

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Correspondence to Patrick S. Fitze.

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Fitze, P.S., Tschirren, B. & Richner, H. Carotenoid-based colour expression is determined early in nestling life. Oecologia 137, 148–152 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-003-1323-3

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  • Carotenoids
  • Honest signalling
  • Maternal effects
  • Paternal effects
  • Plumage coloration