Weaver, R. J., E. S. A. Santos, A. M. Tucker, A. E. Wilson, and G. E. Hill. 2018. Carotenoid metabolism strengthens the link between feather coloration and quality. Nature Communications 9:73. (Clarivate Analytics Web of Science Highly Cited Paper)


Thirty years of research has made carotenoid coloration a textbook example of an honest signal of individual quality, but tests of this idea are surprisingly inconsistent. Here, to investigate sources of this heterogeneity, we perform meta-analyses of published studies on the relationship between carotenoid-based feather coloration and measures of individual quality. To create color displays, animals use either carotenoids unchanged from dietary components or carotenoids that they biochemically convert before deposition. We hypothesize that converted carotenoids better reflect individual quality because of the physiological links between cellular function and carotenoid metabolism. We show that feather coloration is an honest signal of some, but not all, measures of quality. Where these relationships exist, we show that converted, but not dietary, carotenoid coloration drives the relationship. Our results have broad implications for understanding the evolutionary role of carotenoid coloration and the physiological mechanisms that maintain signal honesty of animal ornamental traits.

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