Skip to main content

Dynamic signalling using cosmetics may explain the reversed sexual dichromatism in the monogamous greater flamingo


Colourful plumage is typical of males in species with conventional sex roles, in which females care for offspring and males compete for females, as well as in many monogamous species in which both sexes care for offspring. Reversed sexual dichromatism—more colourful females than males—is predominant in species with sex role reversal. In the latter species, males care for offspring and females compete for mates, the mating system is mainly polyandrous and there is reversed size dimorphism—females are larger than males. Here, we document a case of reversed dichromatism, in the greater flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, in which there is no sex role reversal and no reversed size dimorphism. Although theoretical models postulate that cases of reversed dichromatism should be rare among monogamous ornamented birds, our findings show that the use of cosmetics might be a mechanism for the occurrence of more ornamented females than males. Indeed, the concentrations of carotenoids in the uropygial secretions used as make-up were higher in females than in males. Apparently, there was a trade-off between coloration and antioxidant defence, as the concentrations of carotenoids in the uropygial secretions were lower during chick provisioning than in other periods, contrary to those in plasma. In this system, the application of make-up would act as a dynamic signal, which would allow a rapid reallocation of resources used for signalling among functions depending on needs. Cases like this may have evolved to signal the ability to provide parental care when females are more physiologically stressed than males.

Significance statement

For species in which there is no sex role reversal, but females are ornamented and the resources allocated to ornaments are important for offspring viability, it has even been suggested that females should be less ornamented than males. This may be because for females, it would be better to invest directly in fecundity rather than in costly ornaments. We show a case of reversed sexual dichromatism in a monogamous bird with no sex role reversal, the greater flamingo, where females apply make-up over feathers. In the case of this species, there could be directional male mate preferences for female plumage coloration because the costs of signalling would not affect breeding investment in females, since cosmetic coloration is not used after it is no longer required, thus allowing the resources used in make-up (carotenoids) to be used in other functions.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


Download references


We thank “Cañada de los Pájaros” for providing facilities. M. I. Adrián, O. González, P. Rodríguez, and M. Vázquez helped to capture flamingos and taking samples. Mónica Gutiérrez, from LEM-EBD, did the molecular sexing. Two anonymous reviewers and the editors commented on an earlier version.


Funds were received from Ministerio de Educación y Ciencia of Spain with EU-EURF support (research grants BOS2002-04695 and CGL2005-01136/BOS).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Juan A. Amat.

Ethics declarations

Ethical approval

International, national, and institutional guidelines for the use and capture of animals were followed. Consejería de Medio Ambiente from the Junta de Andalucía (Regional Government) gave permission to conduct the study. An approval from an ethics committee was not needed.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Communicated by E. Fernandez-Juricic

Electronic supplementary material


(PDF 5353 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Amat, J.A., Garrido, A., Portavia, F. et al. Dynamic signalling using cosmetics may explain the reversed sexual dichromatism in the monogamous greater flamingo. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72, 135 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI:


  • Carotenoids
  • Make-up
  • Plumage coloration
  • Plumage maintenance
  • Sexual differences
  • Uropygial secretions