What does carotenoid-dependent coloration tell? Plasma carotenoid level signals immunocompetence and oxidative stress state in birds-A meta-analysis

PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e43088. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043088. Epub 2012 Aug 14.


Mechanisms maintaining honesty of sexual signals are far from resolved, limiting our understanding of sexual selection and potential important parts of physiology. Carotenoid pigmented visual signals are among the most extensively studied sexual displays, but evidence regarding hypotheses on how carotenoids ensure signal honesty is mixed. Using a phylogenetically controlled meta-analysis of 357 effect sizes across 88 different species of birds, we tested two prominent hypotheses in the field: that carotenoid-dependent coloration signals i) immunocompetence and/or ii) oxidative stress state. Separate meta-analyses were performed for the relationships of trait coloration and circulating carotenoid level with different measures of immunocompetence and oxidative stress state. For immunocompetence we find that carotenoid levels (r = 0.20) and trait color intensity (r = 0.17) are significantly positively related to PHA response. Additionally we find that carotenoids are significantly positively related to antioxidant capacity (r = 0.10), but not significantly related to oxidative damage (r = -0.02). Thus our analyses provide support for both hypotheses, in that at least for some aspects of immunity and oxidative stress state the predicted correlations were found. Furthermore, we tested for differences in effect size between experimental and observational studies; a larger effect in observational studies would indicate that co-variation might not be causal. However, we detected no significant difference, suggesting that the relationships we found are causal. The overall effect sizes we report are modest and we discuss potential factors contributing to this, including differences between species. We suggest complementary mechanisms maintaining honesty rather than the involvement of carotenoids in immune function and oxidative stress and suggest experiments on how to test these.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / immunology*
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Carotenoids / chemistry*
  • Color
  • Immune System
  • Immunity / immunology
  • Immunocompetence / immunology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Oxidative Stress*
  • Phylogeny
  • Pigmentation / immunology*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Carotenoids

Grant support

MJPS was funded by a Toptalent grant from the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research (NWO). AAC is member of the FRSQ-funded Centre de recherche clinique Étienne-Le Bel and the Centre de recherche sur le vieillissement, and is supported by NSERC Discovery Grant 402079-2011. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.