Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 7, Issue 5, pp 439–450 | Cite as

The breeding colouration of male three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) as an indicator of energy investment in vigour

  • Markus Frischknecht


A necessary condition of most models of intersexual selection requires that secondary sexual traits are costly so that cheating is prevented. If the conspicuous breeding colouration of male three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus L.) is such a handicap, it must involve costs. I examined the energetic costs of the breeding colouration by varying the energy contents of the daily food supply among five groups of sticklebacks over a 10 week period. The nutritional carotenoid level, i.e. the colour pigment used in the breeding colouration, was constant for all fish. Both the increase of their condition factor and the condition level they finally achieved correlated positively with the food ration of the groups. Individuals whose condition increased during the experiment developed a more intensive red colouration. However, a direct correlation between food quantity and the red breeding colouration reached at the end of the experiment did not exist. Nevertheless, given the limitation of pigment availability, there was still variation in the breeding colouration and the costs for the metabolism of the colouration were sufficient to render it an honest signal: a female stickleback can assess a male's condition and condition change over the past few weeks by the intensity of the colour of his blue eyes (which is not based on carotenoids and whose pigments were therefore not controlled in the food) and his red jaw, respectively. How much an individual male fish invests in increase of length and increase of condition (which correlate negatively with each other) seems to be, at least partly, his own strategic decision, which could have important consequences in the competition for female mates. It is eventually this decision that a male stickleback seems to signal with his red jaw.


breeding colouration carotenoids energy Gasterosteus aculeatus handicap sexual selection signal strategic decision 


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Copyright information

© Chapman & Hall 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Markus Frischknecht
    • 1
  1. 1.Abteilung Verhaltensökologie, Zoologisches InstitutUniversität BernHinterkappelenSwitzerland

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