A fundamental hypothesis for the evolution and maintenance of ornamental traits is that ornaments convey information to choosing females about the quality of prospective mates. A diverse array of ornaments (e.g., colors, morphological features, and behaviors) has been associated with a wide range of measures of individual quality, but decades of study of such indicator traits have failed to produce general mechanisms of honest signaling. Here, I propose that efficiency of cellular respiration, as a product of mitochondrial function, underlies the associations between ornamentation and performance for a broad range of traits across taxa. A large biomedical literature documents the fundamental biochemical links between oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) and the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), the process of metabolism, the function of the immune system, the synthesis of proteins, and the development and function of the nervous system. The production of virtually all ornaments whose expressions have been demonstrated to be condition-dependent is directly affected by the efficiency of cellular respiration, suggesting that the signaling of respiratory efficiency may be the primary function of such traits. Furthermore, the production of ornaments links to stress-response systems, including particularly the neuroendocrine system, through mitochondrial function, thereby makes ornamental traits effective signals of the capacity to withstand environmental perturbations. The identification of a unifying mechanism of honest signaling holds the potential to connect many heretofore-disparate fields of study related to stress and ornamentation, including neuroendocrinology, respiratory physiology, metabolic physiology, and immunology.
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