Melanin pigments provide the most widespread source of coloration in vertebrates, but the adaptive function of such traits remains poorly known.
In a wild population of tawny owls (Strix aluco), we investigated the relationships between plumage coloration, which varies continuously from dark to pale reddish, and the strength and cost of an induced immune response.
The degree of reddishness in tawny owl feather colour was positively correlated with the concentration of phaeomelanin and eumelanin pigments, and plumage coloration was highly heritable (h(2) = 0.93). No carotenoids were detected in the feathers.
In mothers, the degree of melanin-based coloration was associated with antibody production against a vaccine, with dark reddish females maintaining a stronger level of antibody for a longer period of time compared to pale reddish females, but at a cost in terms of greater loss of body mass.
A cross-fostering experiment showed that, independent of maternal coloration, foster chicks reared by vaccinated mothers were lighter than those reared by nonvaccinated mothers. Hence, even though dark reddish mothers suffered a stronger immune cost than pale reddish mothers, this asymmetric cost was not translated to offspring growth.
Our study suggests that different heritable melanin-based colorations are associated with alternative strategies to resist parasite attacks, with dark reddish individuals investing more resources towards the humoral immune response than lightly reddish conspecifics.
- antibody production
- colour polymorphism
- KITTIWAKE RISSA-TRIDACTYLA
- MELANOCORTIN SYSTEM
- PLUMAGE TRAIT
- BARN OWL