Reports on reddish carotenoid-based ornaments in female three-spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) are few, despite the large interest in the species' behaviour, ornamentation, morphology and evolution. We sampled sticklebacks from 17 sites in north-western Europe in this first extensive study on the occurrence of carotenoid-based female pelvic spines and throat ornaments. The field results showed that females, and males, with reddish spines were found in all 17 populations. Specimens of both sexes with conspicuous red spines were found in several of the sites. The pelvic spines of males were more intensely red compared to the females' spines, and large specimens were more red than small ones. Fish infected with the tapeworm (Schistocephalus solidus) had drabber spines than uninfected fish. Both sexes had red spines both during and after the spawning period, but the intensity of the red colour was more exaggerated during the spawning period. As opposed to pelvic spines, no sign of red colour at the throat was observed in any female from any of the 17 populations. A rearing experiment was carried out to estimate a potential genetic component of the pelvic spine ornament by artificial crossing and rearing of 15 family groups during a 12 months period. The results indicated that the genetic component of the red colour at the spines was low or close to zero. Although reddish pelvic spines seem common in populations of stickleback, the potential adaptive function of the reddish pelvic spines remains largely unexplained.
Keywords: Carotenoid; Female ornament; Gasterosteus aculeatus; Ornament; Pelvic spine; Signal; Stickleback.