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Relationships between female quality, egg mass and eggshell blue-green colouration in southern rockhopper penguins: a test of the sexual signalling hypothesis

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Eggshell blue-green colouration (BGC) is caused by the pigment biliverdin which has antioxidant capacities. Eggshell BGC has therefore been interpreted as being costly for the female and therefore a signal of female quality (‘sexual signalling hypothesis’). Southern rockhopper penguins Eudyptes chrysocome exhibit both a reversed hatching asynchrony and a brood reduction strategy. First-laid (A-)eggs are smaller and hatch on average 1 day after second-laid (B-)eggs, with B-eggs usually producing the only surviving chick. According to the sexual signalling hypothesis, we predicted a positive relationship between BGC and both female body mass and egg mass, and consequently within clutches a stronger BGC in B-eggs than A-eggs. Furthermore, we expected a negative relationship between BGC and clutch initiation date. Contrasting these expectations, we found no effect of female body mass or egg mass on BGC, and BGC in A-eggs increased with clutch initiation date, while there was no effect in B-eggs. Within clutches, A-eggshells were more intensely blue-green coloured than B-eggshells. Concluding, our results appear to contradict the sexual signalling hypothesis. We, however, did not measure pigment concentrations and solely relied on BGC from eggshell photospectrometry, assuming that biliverdin concentrations were positively correlated with BGC. We therefore caution that before precluding the sexual signalling hypothesis, future studies that include measurements of eggshell pigment concentrations in addition to BGC are necessary. Altogether, a better understanding of the biological meaning of biliverdin, its biochemical synthesis and antioxidative function in the avian body is urgently needed.

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We are grateful to the New Island Conservation Trust and Petra Quillfeldt for the possibility to carry out this study on the island and for logistic support. We wish to thank Ian, Maria and Georgina Strange as well as George Guille for their support during the field season. We would like to thank the editor of Polar Biology, Prof. Dr. Dieter Piepenburg, and several anonymous reviewers for comments on this manuscript. The study was performed according to Belgian and Flemish law and was approved by the ethical committee on animal experimentation (ECD, ID Number: 2011/44). All work was conducted under research licences granted by the Environmental Planning Department of the Falkland Islands Government (research Licence Numbers: R06/2009). Our study was funded by Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek—Vlaanderen (FWO; Grant Numbers 1.2.619.10.N.00 and to MP and 1265414 N to ND) and Antwerp University.

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Correspondence to Nina Dehnhard.

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Dehnhard, N., Pinxten, R., Demongin, L. et al. Relationships between female quality, egg mass and eggshell blue-green colouration in southern rockhopper penguins: a test of the sexual signalling hypothesis. Polar Biol 38, 1805–1811 (2015).

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