Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 213–222
Sperm cells are highly vulnerable to free radicals, and sperm quality and male fertility are critically affected by oxidative stress. Recently, sexual ornaments, particularly carotenoid-based colourful traits, have been proposed to depend on a male’s capacity to resist oxidative stress, and thus to signal sperm quality. We conducted an experimental test of this hypothesis on great tits Parus major, in which adults are sexually dichromatic in carotenoid-based breast plumage. We report the first evidence that ornaments and sperm quality may be linked through oxidative stress. When experimentally subjected to oxidative stress resulting from increased workload, less colourful males suffered a greater reduction in sperm motility and swimming ability, and increased levels of sperm lipid peroxidation compared to more colourful males. Moreover, the level of sperm lipid peroxidation was negatively correlated with sperm quality. Finally, carotenoid supplementation increased sperm quality of less colourful males, suggesting that pale males are deficient in carotenoid antioxidants.