, Volume 134, Issue 3, pp 301–307 | Cite as

Carotenoid-based plumage coloration of male greenfinches reflects health and immunocompetence

  • Lauri Saks
  • Indrek Ots
  • Peeter Hõrak


Hypotheses of parasite-mediated sexual selection (PMSS) propose that elaborate male ornaments have evolved due to female preferences. Females would benefit from mating with more ornamented males if males' ornamentation signals their health status and ability to provide parasite resistance genes for the offspring. Carotenoid-based plumage coloration of birds has been hypothesised to honestly reflect an individual's health status due to trade-off in allocation of carotenoids between maintenance and signalling functions. The prediction of this hypothesis, namely that individuals with brighter plumage are able to mount stronger immune responses against novel antigens and reveal generally better health state, was tested in captive male greenfinches (Carduelis chloris). Greenfinches with brighter yellow breast feathers showed stronger humoral immune response against novel antigen (SRBC) while no relationship between plumage coloration and an estimate of cell-mediated immune responsiveness (PHA response) was detected. Elaborately ornamented individuals had better general health state as indicated by the negative correlations between plumage brightness and heterophil haemoconcentration. Consistent with the concept of PMSS, these results suggest that carotenoid-based plumage coloration in greenfinches honestly signals immunocompetence and health status.


Carduelis chloris Carotenoids Immune response Leukocytes Plumage colour 



We thank the staff of Kabli Ornithological Station (especially Agu Leivits) for providing facilities and assistance in trapping birds. We are grateful to Karin Lindström who inspected the blood samples for Sindbis virus antibodies and Helen Vellau for counting leukocytes. We thank Ulvi Karu, Lea Tegelmann, Ene Sarapuu and Helen Vellau for assistance in taking care of the birds and for data collection, and Jan Lunström for valuable advice about keeping the greenfinches in captivity. Two anonymous referees provided constructive criticism of the manuscript. The study was financially supported by Estonian Science Foundation grant no. 4537 (to P.H.).


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© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Zoology and HydrobiologyTartu UniversityTartu Estonia

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