• Ficedula hypoleuca;
  • melanin;
  • pied flycatchers;
  • plumage ornament;
  • white wing patch

The impact of feather-degrading bacilli on feathers depends on the presence or absence of melanin. In vitro studies have demonstrated that unmelanized (white) feathers are more degradable by bacteria than melanized (dark) ones. However, no previous study has looked at the possible effect of feather-degrading bacilli on the occurrence of patterns of unmelanized patches on otherwise melanized feathers. The pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca Pallas, 1764 is a sexually dimorphic passerine with white wing bands consisting of unmelanized patches on dark flight feathers. These patches are considered to be a sexually selected trait in Ficedula flycatchers, especially in males, where the patches are more conspicuous (larger and possibly whiter) than in females. Using in vitro tests of feather bacterial degradation, we compared the degradability of unmelanized and melanized areas of the same feather for 127 primaries collected from the same number of individuals in a population breeding in central Spain (58 males and 69 females). In addition, we also looked for sex differences in feather degradability. Based on honest signalling theory and on the fact that there is stronger sexual selection for males to signal feather quality than in females, we predicted that unmelanized areas should be more degradable by bacteria than melanized ones within the same feather, and that these unmelanized areas should also be more degradable in males than in females. We confirmed both predictions. Microstructural differences between cross-section dimensions of unmelanized and melanized barbs, but not differences in the density of barbs within unmelanized and melanized areas of feathers in males and females, could partly explain differences in degradability. This is the first study to show differences in bacterial degradability among markings on the same feather and among unmelanized feather patches between males and females as predicted by sexual selection theory. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 409–419.