Carotenoid-based bill and eye ring coloration as honest signals of condition: an experimental test in the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa)

Naturwissenschaften. 2008 Sep;95(9):821-30. doi: 10.1007/s00114-008-0389-5. Epub 2008 May 10.


Carotenoid pigments cannot be synthesized by vertebrates but must be ingested through the diet. As they seem to be a limited resource, carotenoid-based ornaments are particularly interesting as possible honest signals of individual quality, in particular of foraging efficiency and nutritional status. Some studies have demonstrated the condition dependence of carotenoid-based plumage in birds. However, many other carotenoid-pigmented bare parts (i.e. skin, caruncles, bills, cere, and tarsi) are present in birds but, in comparison with plumage, little is known about these traits as indicators of individual quality. Here, we show that the eye ring pigmentation and bill redness of the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) are positively associated to body condition and recent changes in body mass. Also, we found a negative relationship between these two traits and heterophil-to-lymphocyte ratio, an indicator of physiological stress (the relationship with bill redness being significant only for males). In an experiment, we found that after a period of reduction in food intake (with the consequent loss of body mass), food-restricted birds showed lower eye ring pigmentation than ad-libitum-fed birds. Therefore, different ornaments seem to reflect changes in body condition but at different speeds or intensities (eye ring, a fleshy ornament, appears to respond more rapidly to changes in the nutritional status than a keratinized structure as the bill). These results indicate that carotenoid-based ornaments are condition-dependent traits in the red-legged partridge, being therefore susceptible to be employed as honest signals of quality in sexual selection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Cell Count
  • Body Weight
  • Breeding
  • Carotenoids / analysis*
  • Eye / anatomy & histology
  • Eye Color / physiology*
  • Female
  • Galliformes / anatomy & histology*
  • Galliformes / blood
  • Galliformes / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mouth / physiology*
  • Ocular Physiological Phenomena
  • Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Seasons
  • Skin Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Spain


  • Carotenoids