, Volume 174, Issue 3, pp 689–698 | Cite as

Synchronizing feather-based measures of corticosterone and carotenoid-dependent signals: what relationships do we expect?

  • Graham D. Fairhurst
  • Russell D. DawsonEmail author
  • Harry van Oort
  • Gary R. Bortolotti
Physiological ecology - Original research


Carotenoids produce many of the red, orange and yellow signal traits of birds, and individuals must trade off utilizing carotenoids for physiological processes versus ornamentation. Proximate mechanisms regulating this trade-off are poorly understood, despite their importance for expression of color signals. Corticosterone (CORT) may play a significant mechanistic role in signal expression because it mobilizes energy substrates and influences foraging behavior. We used a unique feather-based approach to test whether CORT mediates expression of carotenoid-based coloration. First, we investigated relationships between levels of CORT from feathers (CORTf) and carotenoid-based plumage signals in common redpolls (Acanthis flammea). Then, we determined how the width of growth bars and probability of having fault bars on feathers varied with CORTf, specifically whether these metrics reflected developmental costs of elevated CORT (“stress” hypothesis) or represented an individual’s quality (“quality” hypothesis). CORTf correlated positively with the strength of carotenoid signals, but only in adult males. However, also in adult males, CORTf was positively related to width of feather growth bars and negatively with probability of having fault bars, providing support for the quality hypothesis. Overall, CORTf was lower in adult males than in females or young males, possibly due to dominance patterns. Our results indicate that CORT may indirectly benefit feather quality, potentially by mediating the expression of carotenoid signals. We place our sex-specific findings into a novel framework that proposes that the influences of CORT in mediating carotenoid-based plumage traits will depend on the extent to which carotenoids are traded off between competing functions.


Acanthis flammea Carotenoid-dependent plumage color Common redpoll Corticosterone Feather quality 



We thank C. Fairhurst and D. and K. McGhee for letting us capture birds on their properties, S. Kinsey, H. Massicotte, R. Wheate, and D. Wilson for collecting redpolls in 2013, and anonymous referees for helpful comments on previous drafts. Funding for this research was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada through a Discovery Grant to R. D. D., and by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund and the University of Northern British Columbia. G. D. F. was supported by the University of Saskatchewan and Nature Saskatchewan. This study was conducted under permit from Environment Canada (permit no. 10729 and 59-02-845) and was approved by the University of Northern British Columbia Animal Care and Use Committee (protocol no. 2001-02d).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Graham D. Fairhurst
    • 1
  • Russell D. Dawson
    • 2
    Email author
  • Harry van Oort
    • 3
  • Gary R. Bortolotti
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada
  2. 2.Ecosystem Science and ManagementUniversity of Northern British ColumbiaPrince GeorgeCanada
  3. 3.Cooper Beauchesne and Associates LimitedRevelstokeCanada

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