, Volume 97, Issue 1, pp 19–28 | Cite as

Carotenoid maintenance handicap and the physiology of carotenoid-based signalisation of health

  • Michal Vinkler
  • Tomáš Albrecht


Despite a reasonable scientific interest in sexual selection, the general principles of health signalisation via ornamental traits remain still unresolved in many aspects. This is also true for the mechanism preserving honesty of carotenoid-based signals. Although it is widely accepted that this type of ornamentation reflects an allocation trade-off between the physiological utilisation of carotenoids (mainly in antioxidative processes) and their deposition in ornaments, some recent evidence suggests more complex interactions. Here, we further develop the models currently proposed to explain the honesty of carotenoid-based signalisation of heath status by adding the handicap principle concept regulated by testosterone. We propose that under certain circumstances carotenoids may be dangerous for the organism because they easily transform into toxic cleavage products. When reserves of other protective antioxidants are insufficient, physiological trade-offs may exist between maintenance of carotenoids for ornament expression and their removal from the body. Furthermore, we suggest that testosterone which enhances ornamentation by increasing carotenoid bioavailability may also promote oxidative stress and hence lower antioxidant reserves. The presence of high levels of carotenoids required for high-quality ornament expression may therefore represent a handicap and only individuals in prime health could afford to produce elaborate colourful ornaments. Although further testing is needed, this ‘carotenoid maintenance handicap’ hypothesis may offer a new insight into the physiological aspects of the relationship between carotenoid function, immunity and ornamentation.


Carotenoids Ornamentation Oxidative stress Testosterone Trade-off 



We are grateful to Heidi C. Haufe, Lukáš Kratochvíl, Jakub Kreisinger, Pavel Munclinger, Jaroslav Piálek, Martina Pokorná, Miroslav Šálek, Dagmar Vinklerová and two anonymous referees for their comments on the manuscript. Grants from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport of the Czech Republic (project MSMT 0021620828), the Czech Science Foundation (projects GACR 206/06/0851 and 206/08/1281) and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (project AV0Z60930519) formed a framework for this study. T.A. was partially supported by the Research Centrum project no. LC06073.


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© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Zoology, Faculty of ScienceCharles University in PraguePragueCzech Republic
  2. 2.Institute of Vertebrate Biology, v.v.i.Academy of Sciences of the Czech RepublicKoněšínCzech Republic

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