The Journal of experimental biology

Carotenoid-based coloration predicts resistance to oxidative damage during immune challenge.

PMID 20435819


Many animal ornaments may have evolved as signals advertising the quality of the bearer. The honesty of the information content of these signals would rely on the costs associated with their expression, these being relatively greater for low-quality than for high-quality individuals. Given the physiological functions of carotenoids, carotenoid-based ornaments could indicate individual immunocompetence, and possibly the ability to mount an immune response at a lower cost. We evaluated whether the red carotenoid-based coloration of male red-legged partridges (Alectoris rufa) predicts the capacity of the individual to counteract the oxidative stress generated by a cell-mediated immune response. Individuals were subcutaneously injected with phytohaemagglutinin (PHA) or phosphate buffer solution (PBS) as a control. We found that eye ring pigmentation predicted the change in the amount of peroxidized lipids (TBARS) in blood after the PHA-induced inflammatory challenge. The degree of pigmentation of this carotenoid-based ornament was also negatively related to individual changes in gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT), another biomarker of oxidative stress involved in antioxidant metabolism (i.e. glutathione recycling). However, changes in circulating carotenoids did not significantly explain changes in lipid peroxidation or GGT levels, suggesting that the higher resistance to oxidative stress of those individuals with more pigmented eye rings was not directly mediated by their greater circulating levels of carotenoids. Our results indicate that carotenoid-based coloration can predict not only immune responsiveness (more coloured males mount greater responses) but also an individual's ability to counter the oxidative stress generated during immune challenge (more coloured males experience less oxidative damage when mounting an immune response).