, Volume 101, Issue 10, pp 803–811 | Cite as

Honest sexual signaling in turtles: experimental evidence of a trade-off between immune response and coloration in red-eared sliders Trachemys scripta elegans

  • Alejandro Ibáñez
  • Nuria Polo-Cavia
  • Pilar López
  • José Martín
Original Paper


Sexual signals can be evolutionarily stable if they are honest and condition dependent or costly to the signaler. One possible cost is the existence of a trade-off between maintaining the immune system and the elaboration of ornaments. This hypothesis has been experimentally tested in some groups of animals but not in others such as turtles. We experimentally challenged the immune system of female red-eared sliders Trachemys scripta elegans, with a bacterial antigen (lipopolysaccharide (LPS)) without pathogenic effects to explore whether the immune activation affected visual colorful ornaments of the head. The LPS injection altered the reflectance patterns of color ornaments. In comparison to the control animals, the yellow chin stripes of injected animals exhibited (1) reduced brightness, (2) lower long wavelength (>470 nm) reflectance, and (3) lower values for carotenoid chroma. The postorbital patches of injected individuals also showed reduced very long wavelength (>570 nm) reflectance but did not change in carotenoid chroma. Thus, experimental turtles showed darker and less “yellowish” chin stripes and less “reddish” postorbital patches at the end of the experiment, whereas control turtles did not change their coloration. This is the first experimental evidence supporting the existence of a trade-off between the immune system and the expression of visual ornaments in turtles. We suggest that this trade-off may allow turtles to honestly signal individual quality via characteristics of coloration, which may have an important role in intersexual selection processes.


Visual signals Female ornaments Immune response Sexual selection Turtles 



We thank three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and “El Ventorrillo” MNCN Field Station for use of their facilities. Financial support was provided by the project MICIIN-CGL2011-24150/BOS and by a FPI predoctoral grant (ref: BES-2009-025228) to AI.

Ethical standards

The experiments enforced all the present Spanish laws and were performed under license from the Environmental Organisms of Madrid Community where they were carried out.

Conflict of interest



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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alejandro Ibáñez
    • 1
  • Nuria Polo-Cavia
    • 2
  • Pilar López
    • 1
  • José Martín
    • 1
  1. 1.Departamento de Ecología EvolutivaMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, C.S.I.C.MadridSpain
  2. 2.Departamento de BiologíaUniversidad Autónoma de MadridMadridSpain

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