Royal Society Publishing

Plumage colour in nestling blue tits: sexual dichromatism, condition dependence and genetic effects

A. Johnsen , K. Delhey , S. Andersson , B. Kempenaers


Sexual–selection theory assumes that there are costs associated with ornamental plumage coloration. While pigment–based ornaments have repeatedly been shown to be condition dependent, this has been more difficult to demonstrate for structural colours. We present evidence for condition dependence of both types of plumage colour in nestling blue tits (Parus caeruleus). Using reflectance spectrometry, we show that blue tit nestlings are sexually dichromatic, with males having more chromatic (more 'saturated') and ultraviolet (UV)–shifted tail coloration and more chromatic yellow breast coloration. The sexual dimorphism in nestling tail coloration is qualitatively similar to that of chick–feeding adults from the same population. By contrast, the breast plumage of adult birds is not sexually dichromatic in terms of chroma. In nestlings, the chroma of both tail and breast feathers is positively associated with condition (body mass on day 14). The UV/blue hue of the tail feathers is influenced by paternally inherited genes, as indicated by a maternal half–sibling comparison. We conclude that the expression of both carotenoid–based and structural coloration seems to be condition dependent in blue tit nestlings, and that there are additional genetic effects on the hue of the UV/blue tail feathers. The signalling or other functions of sexual dichromatism in nestlings remain obscure. Our study shows that nestling blue tits are suitable model organisms for the study of ontogenetic costs and heritability of both carotenoid-based and structural colour in birds.

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