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Cell Mol Life Sci. 2019 Jan;76(2):397-404. doi: 10.1007/s00018-018-2962-1. Epub 2018 Nov 9.

Unprecedented high catecholamine production causing hair pigmentation after urinary excretion in red deer.

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Department of Evolutionary Ecology, Doñana Biological Station, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), C/ Américo Vespucio 26, 41092, Seville, Spain.
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology B and Immunology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Murcia, Campus de Espinardo, 30100, Murcia, Spain.
Regional Institute for Applied Scientific Research (IRICA), University of Castilla-La Mancha, Ciudad Real, Spain.
Department of Analytical Chemistry and Food Technology, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Castilla-La Mancha, Albacete, Spain.
Department of Analytical Chemistry and Food Technology, Faculty of Chemical Science and Technology, University of Castilla-La Mancha, Ciudad Real, Spain.
Ungulate Research Unit, Cátedra de Recursos Cinegéticos y Piscícolas (CRCP), University of Cordoba, Campus de Rabanales, 14071, Córdoba, Spain.


Hormones have not been found in concentrations of orders of magnitude higher than nanograms per milliliter. Here, we report urine concentrations of a catecholamine (norepinephrine) ranging from 0.05 to 0.5 g/l, and concentrations of its metabolite DL-3,4-dihydroxyphenyl glycol (DOPEG) ranging from 1.0 to 44.5 g/l, in wild male red deer Cervus elaphus hispanicus after LC-MS analyses. The dark ventral patch of male red deer, a recently described sexually selected signal, contains high amounts of DOPEG (0.9-266.9 mg/l) stuck in the hairs, while DOPEG is not present in non-darkened hair. The formation of this dark patch is explained by the chemical structure of DOPEG, which is a catecholamine-derived o-diphenol susceptible to be oxidized by air and form allomelanins, nitrogen-free pigments similar to cutaneous melanins; by its high concentration in urine; and by the urine spraying behavior of red deer by which urine is spread through the ventral body area. Accordingly, the size of the dark ventral patch was positively correlated with the concentration of DOPEG in urine, which was in turn correlated with DOPEG absorbed in ventral hair. These findings represent catecholamine concentrations about one million higher than those previously reported for any hormone in an organism. This may have favored the evolution of the dark ventral patch of red deer by transferring information on the fighting capacity to rivals and mates. Physiological limits for hormone production in animals are thus considerably higher than previously thought. These results also unveil a novel mechanism of pigmentation based on the self-application of urine over the fur.


Allomelanins; Catecholamines; Deer; Pigmentation; Urine hormones

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