Fat soluble antioxidants in brood-rearing great tits Parus major: relations to health and appearance


  • Peeter Hõrak,

  • Peter F. Surai,

  • Indrek Ots,

  • Anders P. Møller

P. Hõrak (correspondence) and I. Ots, Institute of Zoology and Hydrobiology, Tartu University, Vanemuise 46, 51014 Tartu, Estonia. E-mail: horak@ut.ee. P.F. Surai, Avian Science Research Centre, Scottish Agricultural College, Ayr KA6 5HW, UK. A.P. Møller, Laboratorie de Parasitologie Evolutive, CRNS UMR 7103, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Bât. A, 7ème étage, 7 quai St. Bernard, Case 237, F-75252 Paris Cedex 05, France.


The concept of parasite-mediated sexual selection assumes that females may improve offspring fitness by selecting mates on the basis of sexual ornaments that honestly reveal the health state of a partner. Expression of such signals may be particularly sensitive to oxidative damage caused by excess production of oxidative metabolites and free radicals. To control and neutralise free radicals, animals rely heavily on dietary fat-soluble antioxidants such as vitamin E and A, and carotenoids. However, the organism's need for free radical scavenging may interfere with the opposite need to generate oxidative stress for fighting parasitic infections. We investigated plasma concentrations of carotenoids and vitamin A and E in brood-rearing great tits Parus major in relation to carotenoid-based plumage coloration, sex, habitat, leukocyte hemoconcentrations and infection status with Haemoproteus blood parasites. Rural great tits differed from urban ones and males from females with respect to the hue of the yellow ventral feathers. However, plasma antioxidant concentrations were not related to sex, habitat or plumage coloration. Plasma carotenoid concentration correlated positively with indices of immune system activation as measured by blood counts of lymphocytes and eosinophils. Birds with gametocytes of Haemoproteus in their blood had higher plasma concentrations of carotenoids and vitamin E than unparasitized individuals. These results are consistent with the idea that maintenance of high blood antioxidant levels might conflict with individual needs to rely on oxidative stress for fighting infections.