Eumelanin- and pheomelanin-based colour advertise resistance to oxidative stress in opposite ways


Alexandre Roulin, Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland.
Tel.: +41 (0) 21 692 41 89; fax: +41 (0) 21 692 41 65; e-mail:


The control mechanisms and information content of melanin-based colourations are still debated among evolutionary biologists. Recent hypotheses contend that molecules involved in melanogenesis alter other physiological processes, thereby generating covariation between melanin-based colouration and other phenotypic attributes. Interestingly, several molecules such as agouti and glutathione that trigger the production of reddish-brown pheomelanin have an inhibitory effect on the production of black/grey eumelanin, whereas other hormones, such as melanocortins, have the opposite effect. We therefore propose the hypothesis that phenotypic traits positively correlated with the degree of eumelanin-based colouration may be negatively correlated with the degree of pheomelanin-based colouration, or vice versa. Given the role played by the melanocortin system and glutathione on melanogenesis and resistance to oxidative stress, we examined the prediction that resistance to oxidative stress is positively correlated with the degree of black colouration but negatively with the degree of reddish colouration. Using the barn owl (Tyto alba) as a model organism, we swapped eggs between randomly chosen nests to allocate genotypes randomly among environments and then we measured resistance to oxidative stress using the KRL assay in nestlings raised by foster parents. As predicted, the degree of black and reddish pigmentations was positively and negatively correlated, respectively, with resistance to oxidative stress. Our results reveal that eumelanin- and pheomelanin-based colourations can be redundant signals of resistance to oxidative stress.