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PLoS One. 2008 Oct 3;3(10):e3335. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003335.

An intracellular antioxidant determines the expression of a melanin-based signal in a bird.

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  • 1Department of Evolutionary Ecology of the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (CSIC) in Madrid, Madrid, Spain. galvan@mncn.csic.es


To understand how traits used in animal communication evolved and are maintained as honest signals, we need to understand the mechanisms that prevent cheating. It has been proposed that honest signaling is guaranteed by the costs associated with the signal expression. However, the nature of these costs is still under debate. Melanin-based signals are intriguing because their expression seems to be tightly controlled by genes and the resource involved (i.e. melanin) seems to be not limited. However, in vertebrates, low levels of a key intracellular antioxidant (i.e. glutathione) are needed to promote melanogenesis. We propose that melanin-based ornaments can signal the ability to cope with oxidative stress because those individuals with low enough levels of glutathione, such as those required for melanin production, should manage well the whole of the antioxidant machinery in order to maintain a certain oxidative status. We analysed the expression of a melanin-based signal: the well-known black stripe of the great tit (Parus major). Great tit nestlings were injected with a specific inhibitor of glutathione production (DL-buthionine-S,R-sulfoximine; BSO) throughout their development. BSO effectively decreased intracellular glutathione levels without apparent side effects on growth or body condition. Instead, treated nestlings developed black breast stripes 70-100% larger than controls. Moreover, treated nestlings also compensated the decrease in glutathione levels by increasing the levels of circulating antioxidants. Results indicate that melanin-based signals can be at least partially permeable to environmental influences such as those associated to oxidative stress. They also reveal a potential handicap associated to the expression of this kind of signals. Finally, although other contributing factors could have been present, our findings emphasize the role of oxidative stress in shaping the evolution of animal signals in general and, in particular, those produced by pigments.

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