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Proc Biol Sci. 2001 Jun 22;268(1473):1245-53.

Carotenoid scarcity, synthetic pteridine pigments and the evolution of sexual coloration in guppies (Poecilia reticulata).

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  • 1Department of Organismic Biology, Ecology and Evolution, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1606, USA.


Carotenoid-based sexual coloration is the classic example of an honest signal of mate quality. Animals cannot synthesize carotenoid pigments and ultimately depend on dietary sources. Thus, in carotenoid-poor environments, carotenoid coloration may be a direct indicator of foraging ability and an indirect indicator of health and vigour. Carotenoid coloration may also be affected, more directly, by parasites in some species. Carotenoids are not, however, the only conspicuous pigments available to animals. Pteridine pigments, with similar spectral properties, are displayed in the exoskeletons and wings of insects, the irides of birds and the skins of fishes, lizards and amphibians. Unlike carotenoids, pteridines are synthesized de novo by animals. We report that the orange spots that male guppies (Poecilia reticulata) display to females contain red pteridine pigments (drosopterins) in addition to carotenoids. We also examined the relationship between drosopterin production by males and carotenoid availability in the field. The results contrasted sharply with the hypothesis that males use drosopterins to compensate for carotenoid scarcity: males used more, not less, drosopterins in streams with higher carotenoid availability. The positive association between drosopterin use and carotenoid availability could reflect the costs of drosopterin synthesis or it could be a consequence of females preferring a particular pigment ratio or hue. Male guppies appear to use drosopterin pigments in a manner that dilutes, but does not eliminate, the indicator value of carotenoid coloration.

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