Colour polymorphism in vertebrates is usually under genetic control and may be associated with variation in physiological traits. The melanocortin 1 receptor (Mc1r) has been involved repeatedly in melanin-based pigmentation but it was thought to have few other physiological effects. However, recent pharmacological studies suggest that MC1R could regulate the aspects of immunity. We investigated whether variation at Mc1r underpins plumage colouration in the Eleonora's falcon. We also examined whether nestlings of the different morphs differed in their inflammatory response induced by phytohemagglutinin (PHA). Variation in colouration was due to a deletion of four amino acids at the Mc1r gene. Cellular immune response was morph specific. In males, but not in females, dark nestling mounted a lower PHA response than pale ones. Although correlative, our results raise the neglected possibility that MC1R has pleiotropic effects, suggesting a potential role of immune capacity and pathogen pressure on the maintenance of colour polymorphism in this species.
© 2011 The Authors. Journal of Evolutionary Biology © 2011 European Society For Evolutionary Biology.