Detrimental effects of carotenoid pigments: the dark side of bright coloration
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Carotenoid pigments produce yellow, orange, and red integumentary color displays that can serve as reliable signals of health and condition. In many birds and fish, individuals gain competitive or mating advantages by ingesting and utilizing large quantities of carotenoid pigments. Carotenoid pigments serve as antioxidants, performing important functions as free-radical scavengers. The beneficial effects of carotenoid pigments are well documented, but rarely have researchers considered potential detrimental effects of high-level accumulation of carotenoids. We maintained American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) on high- or low-carotenoid diets through molt and tested for damage to the liver and skeletal muscle. High intake of carotenoids had no measurable effect on liver enzymes but caused an increase in creatine kinase, an indicator of skeletal muscle breakdown, and a reduction in vertical flight performance, a measure of skeletal muscle integrity. The detrimental effects of high-level carotenoid accumulation were approximately equivalent to the negative effects of removing carotenoids from the diet. The adverse effects observed in this study have important implications for theories of the function and evolution of colorful plumage.