Pigments versus structure: examining the mechanism of age-dependent change in a carotenoid-based colour


  • Simon R. Evans,

    Corresponding authorCurrent affiliation:
    1. Department of Animal Ecology, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
    • Edward Grey Institute, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
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  • Ben C. Sheldon

    1. Edward Grey Institute, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
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Correspondence author. E-mail: simon.evans@ebc.uu.se


  1. Within-population colour variation is widespread in animals, yet the determinants of variable coloration have been relatively neglected by ecologists.

  2. Age-dependent expression of conspicuous coloration is prevalent, particularly in birds. Such patterns can be generated by multiple combinations of demographic heterogeneity or within-individual change; longitudinal analyses are necessary to establish the importance of these processes.

  3. Further, although pigment-based colours are composite traits, produced by multiple component mechanisms (e.g. feather microstructure and carotenoid pigmentation), the contributions of these mechanisms to components of age dependence are rarely considered, even though doing so may yield information about the ecological causes for age-dependent coloration.

  4. We used a large-scale, longitudinal study of carotenoid-based plumage coloration in great tits (Parus major) to show age dependence of plumage coloration is driven almost exclusively by within-individual effects in the first 2 years of life.

  5. Using wavelength-specific analyses, we show that feather microstructure, while sensitive to annual variation, is independent of age, with increased carotenoid deposition driving changes in coloration. However, estimates of local carotenoid availability did not explain the change in coloration within individuals, suggesting that pigment availability may not be limiting.

  6. We thus show that it is individual-level changes in the pigment component of carotenoid-based coloration that determines age-dependent colour expression in great tits. More generally, our study highlights the utility of wavelength-specific analyses in determining the mechanisms underlying changes in expression of composite colour traits.