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Plumage colour predicts dispersal propensity in male pied flycatchers

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Melanin-based colouration of tegument structures may be related to variability in the expression of certain strategies or behaviours within a species, including the propensity to disperse. This is because melanin synthesis may be physiologically linked to certain behaviours and personality traits, as proposed by the hypothesis of the pleiotropy in the melanocortin system (HPMS). During a 28-year period (1988–2015), we studied the melanin-based dorsal colouration of male pied flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca) in relation to natal dispersal movements between contrasting (pine and oak) habitats. In addition, the relationship between tonic immobility (TI), a measure of individual fearfulness towards predators, and plumage colour was examined using a shorter time series. Consistent with HPMS, males’ dispersal propensity was related to their plumage colour, with the blackest individuals being more likely to disperse into a new habitat to breed. Blacker males remained for longer in TI than lighter ones. The positive relationship between plumage melanisation and TI might result from the pleiotropic effect of the melanocortin system on glucocorticoid-mediated stress and fearfulness responses as well as on eumelanin synthesis. This study provides solid empirical support for the HPMS in relation to natal dispersal behaviour.

Significance statement

Individual behaviour can be integrated with other phenotypic traits via the pleiotropic effects of some biochemical pathways. Recent research has shown connections between melanin-based colouration, personality and certain life history traits. However, the relationship between colouration and natal dispersal—a critical phase of life—has received comparatively little attention. We studied this link in the pied flycatcher, a small bird in which males exhibit considerable variation in dorsal plumage colour, ranging from brown to black. By following individuals from fledging to settlement, we show that males with a higher percentage of black feathers are more likely to disperse into novel environments than lighter males. Furthermore, we found an association between plumage melanisation and individual fearfulness to predators, possibly due to the shared pathways of melanin synthesis and stress responses. Our results highlight the potential of the interplay between melanin production and individual behaviour to explain the maintenance of colour variability in natural populations.

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We thank María Cuenca-Cambronero, Alba Ruiz-Ramos, Marta Guntiñas, Javier Manzano-Baraza, Gerardo Jiménez-Navarro, David Ochoa, Tomás Redondo, Fran Romero, Gregorio Moreno-Rueda, Inés Valencia and Óscar Frías for help with fieldwork. We are grateful to Alexandre Roulin and three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on a previous draft.


Long-term monitoring of the study population has been mainly funded by the Spanish CCYT, most recently by projects CGL2014-55969-P (to F. Valera) and CGL201570639-P (to L.Z. Garamszegi) of the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. CC received financial support from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (SVP-2013-067686). LP-R was supported by a postdoctoral contract from MINECO through the Severo Ochoa Programme for Centres of Excellence in RandDandI (SEV-2012-0262). DC was supported by projects CGL2009-10652 and CGL2015-70639-P.

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Correspondence to Carlos Camacho.

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Birds were caught and ringed under licences from the Ringing Office of the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Environment. All work was subject to review by the ethical committees at the Doñana Biological Station and the CSIC headquarters (Spain) and adhered to Spain standard requirements.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Communicated by K. McGraw

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Camacho, C., Pérez-Rodríguez, L., Abril-Colón, I. et al. Plumage colour predicts dispersal propensity in male pied flycatchers. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72, 2 (2018).

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