Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Riverside

UC Riverside Previously Published Works bannerUC Riverside

Pigment-specific relationships between feather corticosterone concentrations and sexual coloration


The adrenocortical stress response may divert energy away from sexual ornamentation, such that ornaments signal exposure or resistance to physiological stress. Alternatively, steroid glucocorticoids released via the stress response may support ornament development by stimulating foraging and metabolism. The relationship between glucocorticoids and ornamentation may vary with ornament type and across age and sex classes that experience different resource allocation tradeoffs. In yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia), we conducted the first study to simultaneously assess whether relationships between corticosterone (the primary avian glucocorticoid) and ornamentation depend on sexual pigment type, age, and sex. We quantified carotenoid- and phaeomelanin-based pigmentation using spectrometry, and assayed corticosterone in feathers (CORTf) to derive an integrative metric of corticosterone levels during molt. Yellow warblers with lower carotenoid hue (lambda R50) had higher CORTf, suggesting that carotenoid hue may signal stress during molt across age and sex classes. Carotenoid chroma also negatively correlated with CORTf. However, this correlation was absent in older males, seemingly because these males display more saturated carotenoid pigmentation, and thus less variance in carotenoid chroma. Young males with higher CORTf also tended to have poorer quality tertial feathers, indicating poor condition at molt. Phaeomelanin-based pigmentation was largely unrelated to CORTf, suggesting that pleiotropic effects do not link phaeomelanogenesis and CORT release. Finally, CORTf was repeatable across years within individuals. Thus, carotenoid- and phaeomelanin-based pigmentation communicate nonequivalent information about physiological stress, with carotenoid pigmentation having the potential to signal stable differences in stress levels that could affect fitness.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View