Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 625–634
Condition is a nearly ubiquitous term in the behavioural, physiological and evolutionary ecology literature; however, existing definitions are incomplete or ambiguous. This poor conceptualization has led to confusion regarding what is being signalled by condition-dependent traits and how to interpret links between ornamentation and individual characteristics such as nutrient reserves, oxidative state and immunocompetence. I propose that the combined effects of the somatic state, epigenetic state and genotype of an organism determine condition. I define condition as the relative capacity to maintain optimal functionality of vital systems within the body. A condition-dependent trait is a conspicuous feature of an organism that enhances perception of condition. Ornament expression can link to system functionality in at least four ways: (1) resources are traded off between operation of physiological pathways and production of ornaments; (2) a regulatory agent necessary for ornament expression depresses a vital physiological process; (3) ornament production requires a product of a vital physiological process; and (4) pathways are shared between ornament production and vital physiological processes. If the honesty of ornamental traits derives from connections to vital cellular processes then there is no need to invoke a fitness cost of ornamentation to insure signal honesty.