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Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Jun 7;272(1568):1121-7.

Dual functions of a melanin-based ornament in the common yellowthroat.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 53201, USA.


Melanin-based ornaments often function as signals in male-male competition, whereas carotenoid-based ornaments appear to be important in female mate choice. This difference in function is thought to occur because carotenoid pigments are more costly to produce than melanins and are thus more reliable indicators of male quality. We examined the role of melanin- and carotenoid-based ornaments in male-male competition and female choice in the common yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas, a sexually dichromatic passerine. Males display a black facial mask produced by melanin pigmentation and a bright yellow bib (throat, breast and belly) produced by carotenoid pigmentation. In controlled aviary experiments, mask size was the best predictor of both male-male competition and female mate choice, and, therefore, mask size may be regarded as an ornament of dual function. These dual functions may help to maintain the reliability of mask size as an indicator of male quality, despite the potentially low cost of production. The size of the bib was unrelated to male-male competition or female choice, but there was a tendency for females to prefer males with more colourful bibs. We propose that the black mask is important in competition for territories with other males and for attracting females. Our results highlight the need for more studies of the mechanisms of sexual selection in species with ornaments composed of different pigment types.

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