Inter-annual variation in American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) plumage colour is associated with rainfall and temperature during moult: an 11-year study

Abstract

Carotenoid-based colouration plays an important role in sexual signaling in animals as an honest indicator of individual quality during mate choice and competitive interactions. However, few studies have examined how natural variation in weather conditions influences inter-annual variation in the expression of ornamentation, potentially through affecting the dietary availability of carotenoids. In this study, we examine variation in the expression of carotenoid-based plumage colouration in relation to temperature and rainfall during the pre-moulting and moulting period over 11 years in a population of American redstarts, Setophaga ruticilla, breeding in eastern Canada. We used reflectance spectrometry of tail feathers collected from male and female redstarts to relate feather colour with weather conditions the previous breeding season during the months over which redstarts are likely to moult (June–September). At a population level, birds expressed feathers with higher red chroma and lower brightness in years following high July rainfall and low August temperature. The pattern was stronger in males, but was generally consistent across ages and sexes. Analyses of feathers from repeatedly captured birds indicated that the above patterns could be explained by individual change in feather colour. We suggest that higher rainfall during the moulting period may increase insect abundance and the availability of dietary carotenoids. This is among the first studies to show effects of weather conditions on a sexual signalling trait, which may have important consequences for sexual selection, mate choice, and the reliability of putative signals.

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Acknowledgments

We thank would like to thank the many field assistants, technicians, and students that worked on this population over the years. We also thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. Funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation (P.P.M) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery Grants to L.M.R. and M.W.R.

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Correspondence to Matthew W. Reudink.

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M. W. Reudink and A. E. McKellar contributed equally to this work.

Communicated by Indrikis Krams.

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Reudink, M.W., McKellar, A.E., Marini, K.L.D. et al. Inter-annual variation in American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) plumage colour is associated with rainfall and temperature during moult: an 11-year study. Oecologia 178, 161–173 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-3167-4

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Keywords

  • Plumage
  • Carotenoid
  • Climate
  • Long-term
  • Moult
  • Colour change