, Volume 92, Issue 8, pp 375–380 | Cite as

Maternally derived carotenoid pigments affect offspring survival, sex ratio, and sexual attractiveness in a colorful songbird

  • K. J. McGraw
  • E. Adkins-Regan
  • R. S. Parker
Short Communication


In egg-laying animals, mothers can influence the development of their offspring via the suite of biochemicals they incorporate into the nourishing yolk (e.g. lipids, hormones). However, the long-lasting fitness consequences of this early nutritional environment have often proved elusive. Here, we show that the colorful carotenoid pigments that female zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) deposit into egg yolks influence embryonic and nestling survival, the sex ratio of fledged offspring, and the eventual ornamental coloration displayed by their offspring as adults. Mothers experimentally supplemented with dietary carotenoids prior to egg-laying incorporated more carotenoids into eggs, which, due to the antioxidant activity of carotenoids, rendered their embryos less susceptible to free-radical attack during development. These eggs were subsequently more likely to hatch, fledge offspring, produce more sons than daughters, and produce sons who exhibited more brightly colored carotenoid-based beak pigmentation. Provisioned mothers also acquired more colorful beaks, which directly predicted levels of carotenoids found in eggs, thus indicating that these pigments may function not only as physiological ‘damage-protectants’ in adults and offspring but also as morphological signals of maternal reproductive capabilities.


Carotenoid Zebra Finch Carotenoid Pigment Carotenoid Level Dietary Carotenoid 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (IBN-9514088 and –0130986 to EAR) and the Environmental Protection Agency (STAR Fellowship # 91584201-0 to KJM). We thank Roche Vitamins Inc. for donating carotenoid and placebo beadlets, E. Mackillop for assistance with data collection, T. Van Deusen, P. Smith, and D. Sheils for animal care, Cornell's Behavior Lunch Bunch and Queen's University's EEB group for offering insightful criticism, and A. Badyaev, J. Dale, S. Doucet, M. Hauber, G. Hill, K. Pilz, and A. Stoehr for constructive comments on the manuscript. All procedures were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at Cornell University (Protocol #'s 99-89, 00-34).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • K. J. McGraw
    • 1
    • 4
  • E. Adkins-Regan
    • 1
    • 2
  • R. S. Parker
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Neurobiology and BehaviorCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  3. 3.Division of Nutritional SciencesCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  4. 4.School of Life SciencesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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