• age;
  • life history;
  • ornament;
  • phenotype plasticity

Ornament expression fluctuates with age in many organisms. Whether these changes are adaptively plastic is poorly known. In order to understand the ultimate function of melanin-based ornaments, we studied their within-individual fluctuations and their covariation with fitness-related traits. In barn owls (Tyto alba), individuals vary from reddish-brown pheomelanic to white, and from immaculate to marked with black eumelanic spots, with males being less reddish and less spotted than females. During the first molt, both sexes became less pheomelanic, females displayed larger spots and males fewer spots, but the extent of these changes was not associated with reproduction. At subsequent molts, intra-individual changes in melanin-based traits covaried with simultaneous reproduction changes. Adult females bred earlier in the season and laid larger eggs when they became scattered with larger spots, whereas adults of both sexes produced larger broods when they became whiter. These results suggest that the production of melanin pigments and fitness-related life-history traits are concomitantly regulated in a sex-specific way. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 101, 689–704.