Female-specific colouration, carotenoids and reproductive investment in a dichromatic species, the upland goose Chloephaga picta leucoptera

Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 2010 Nov;64(11):1779-1789. doi: 10.1007/s00265-010-0990-4. Epub 2010 Jun 11.

Abstract

Although studies on the evolution and function of female ornaments have become more numerous in the last years, the majority of these studies were carried out in cases where female ornaments were a smaller and duller version of the ornaments found in males. There are substantially fewer studies on species with female-specific ornaments. However, no study so far investigated the potential of female-specific colouration as a quality signal in birds with conventional sex roles. We studied female-specific ornamentation in a strongly sexually dichromatic species, the upland goose Chloephaga picta leucoptera, in two consecutive years. Male upland geese have white head and breast feathers and black legs, whereas females have reddish-brown head and breast feathers and conspicuous yellow-orange legs. We found that female-specific colouration in upland geese can reliably indicate different aspects of female phenotypic quality. Females with more orange coloured legs and more red-like head colours had higher clutch and egg volumes than females with a paler leg and head colouration, and a more reddish plumage colouration was related to a higher body condition. These relationships provide the theoretic possibility for males to assess female phenotypic quality on the basis of colouration. Furthermore, the females with a more orange-like tarsus colouration had higher plasma carotenoid levels. Both tarsus colouration and carotenoid concentrations of individual females were highly correlated across years, indicating that tarsus colour is a stable signal. Despite this correlation, small individual differences in plasma carotenoid concentrations between the two study years were related to differences in tarsus colouration. We thus show for the first time in a wild bird and under natural conditions that carotenoid-based integument colouration remains consistent between individuals in consecutive years and is also a dynamic trait reflecting individual changes in carotenoid levels. In this species, where pairs form life-long bonds, the honesty of the carotenoid-based integument colouration suggests that it may be a sexually selected female ornament that has evolved through male mate choice. ELECTRONIC SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL: The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00265-010-0990-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.