Regulation of stress response is heritable and functionally linked to melanin-based coloration

Authors


Bettina Almasi, Swiss Ornithological Institute, Luzernerstrasse 6, 6204 Sempach, Switzerland. Tel.: +41 41 462 9768; fax: +41 41 462 9710; e-mail: bettina.almasi@vogelwarte.ch

Abstract

Sexual selection theory posits that ornaments can signal the genetic quality of an individual. Eumelanin-based coloration is such an ornament and can signal the ability to cope with a physiological stress response because the melanocortin system regulates eumelanogenesis as well as physiological stress responses. In the present article, we experimentally investigated whether the stronger stress sensitivity of light than dark eumelanic individuals stems from differential regulation of stress hormones. Our study shows that darker eumelanic barn owl nestlings have a lower corticosterone release after a stressful event, an association, which was also inherited from the mother (but not the father) to the offspring. Additionally, nestlings sired by darker eumelanic mothers more quickly reduced experimentally elevated corticosterone levels. This provides a solution as to how ornamented individuals can be more resistant to various sources of stress than drab conspecifics. Our study suggests that eumelanin-based coloration can be a sexually selected signal of resistance to stressful events.

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