An experimental test of the dose-dependent effect of carotenoids and immune activation on sexual signals and antioxidant activity

Am Nat. 2004 Nov;164(5):651-9. doi: 10.1086/424971. Epub 2004 Sep 29.


Carotenoid-based sexual traits are thought to be reliable indicators of male quality because they might be scarce and therefore might indicate the ability of males to gather high-quality food and because they are involved in important physiological functions (as immune enhancers and antioxidants). We performed an experiment where male and female zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) were provided with increasing carotenoid doses in the drinking water during 4 weeks (bill color of this species is a carotenoid-based sexual signal). Simultaneously, birds were split into two groups: one receiving weekly injections of Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide in order to activate the immune system, the other being injected with the same volume of phosphate buffered saline. We assessed how carotenoid availability and immune activation affected the amount of circulating plasma carotenoids, the beak color, and the antioxidant defenses (assessed as the resistance of red blood cells to a controlled free radical attack). Carotenoid availability affected the amount of circulating carotenoids and beak color; both variables reached a plateau at the highest carotenoid doses. Immune activation diverted carotenoids from plasma, and this in turn affected the expression of the sexual trait. Finally, we found a positive correlation between the change in circulating carotenoids and antioxidant defenses. These results support the idea that carotenoids have important physiological properties that ensure the honesty of carotenoid-based sexual traits.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / physiology*
  • Beak / anatomy & histology
  • Body Size
  • Carotenoids / blood
  • Carotenoids / pharmacology*
  • Color
  • Cues
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Female
  • Finches / anatomy & histology
  • Finches / immunology*
  • Finches / metabolism
  • Immunity, Innate* / drug effects
  • Lipopolysaccharides / pharmacology
  • Male
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal


  • Antioxidants
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Carotenoids