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Keywords:

  • age;
  • barn swallow;
  • colouration;
  • melanin;
  • senescence;
  • sexual selection

Summary

  • 1
    Colour may show effects of senescence because the pigment or structures involved in production of colouration deteriorate with age.
  • 2
    We tested this hypothesis by investigating age-related changes in plumage colour for two feather tracts coloured by eumelanin or pheomelanin in a longitudinal study of a cohort of barn swallows Hirundo rustica that reached very old age (at least 5 years).
  • 3
    The level of melanization of the throat increased with age in both sexes, but particularly in females. In contrast, the black colour of the plumage of the back was unrelated to age in both sexes.
  • 4
    These age-dependent patterns of colouration of different feather tracts of male and female barn swallows suggest that effects of senescence are trait-specific depending on their importance in sexual signalling. The red throat colour based on pheomelanin is involved in sexual selection, with a strong effect in males, but not in females. In contrast, the black colour of the back based on eumelanin is unrelated to sexual selection, but is under natural selection due to intense abrasion of this feather tract.
  • 5
    These findings suggest that the relative importance of natural and sexual selection are important determinants of the pattern and rate of senescence of colour.