The oxidation handicap hypothesis and the carotenoid allocation trade-off


C. Alonso-Alvarez, Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos, IREC (CSIC, UCLM, JCCM), Ronda de Toledo, s/n 13071, Ciudad Real, Spain.
Tel.: +34 926295450; fax: +34 926295451; e-mail:


The oxidation handicap hypothesis proposes that testosterone mediates the trade-off between the expression of secondary sexual traits and the fight against free radicals. Coloured traits controlled by testosterone can be produced by carotenoid pigments (yellow–orange–red traits), but carotenoids also help to quench free radicals. Recently, it has been shown that testosterone increases the amount of circulating carotenoids in birds. Here, a testosterone-mediated trade-off in the carotenoid allocation between colour expression and the fight against oxidative stress is proposed. Male red-legged partridges were treated with testosterone, anti-androgens or manipulated as controls. Testosterone-treated males maintained the highest circulating carotenoid levels, but showed the palest red traits and no evidence of oxidative damage. Increased levels of a key intracellular antioxidant (i.e. glutathione) indicated that an oxidative challenge was in fact induced but controlled. The trade-off was apparently solved by reducing redness, allowing increased carotenoid availability, which could have contributed to buffer oxidative stress.