, Volume 96, Issue 1, pp 123-128
Date: 14 Oct 2008

Do feather-degrading bacteria affect sexually selected plumage color?

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Models of parasite-mediated sexual selection propose that males with more elaborate sexual traits will have fewer parasites. These models have generally been tested using metazoan or protozoan parasites of the blood, gut, or integument. Fewer studies have examined sexual ornaments in relation to bacterial infections. While most surface bacteria are harmless or beneficial, feather-degrading bacteria may have detrimental effects. In this study, we examined the relationships between overall bacterial load, feather-degrading bacterial load, and sexually selected carotenoid-based plumage color in a wild population of house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus). We found that males with the redder plumage preferred by females had similar overall bacterial loads, but lower feather-degrading bacterial loads, than males with less red plumage. These data suggest that plumage color can signal abundance of feather-degrading bacteria to potential mates. It remains unclear whether feather-degrading bacteria directly or indirectly affect plumage color, but the observed correlations suggest that feather-degrading bacteria may play some role in sexual selection.