, Volume 65, Issue 4, pp 665-673
Date: 23 Oct 2010

Greater flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus use uropygial secretions as make-up

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Abstract

It was long thought that the colour of bird feathers does not change after plumage moult. However, there is increasing evidence that the colour of feathers may change due to abrasion, photochemical change and staining, either accidental or deliberate. The coloration of plumage due to deliberate staining, i.e. with cosmetic purposes, may help individuals to communicate their quality to conspecifics. The presence of carotenoids in preen oils has been previously only suggested, and here we confirm for the first time its presence in such oils. Moreover, the carotenoids in the uropygial secretions were the same specific pigments found in feathers. We show not only that the colour of feathers of greater flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus became more colourful due to the application of carotenoids from uropygial secretions over the plumage but also that the feathers became more colourful with the quantity of pigments applied over them, thus providing evidence of cosmetic coloration. Flamingos used uropygial secretions as cosmetic much more frequently during periods when they were displaying in groups than during the rest of the year, suggesting that the primary function of cosmetic coloration is mate choice. Individuals with more colourful plumage initiated nesting earlier. There was a correlation between plumage coloration before and after removal of uropygial secretions from feathers’ surfaces, suggesting that the use of these pigmented secretions may function as a signal amplifier by increasing the perceptibility of plumage colour, and hence of individual quality. As the cosmetic coloration strengthens signal intensity by reinforcing base-plumage colour, its use may help to the understanding of selection for signal efficacy by making interindividual differences more apparent.

Communicated by J. Lindström