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Oecologia. 2011 Aug;166(4):913-21. doi: 10.1007/s00442-011-1955-7. Epub 2011 Mar 8.

Pale and dark reddish melanic tawny owls differentially regulate the level of blood circulating POMC prohormone in relation to environmental conditions.

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Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.


Knowledge of the hormonal pathway controlling genotype-specific norms of reaction would shed light on the ecological factors to which each genotype is adapted. Environmentally mediated changes in the sign and magnitude of covariations between heritable melanin-based colouration and fitness components are frequent, revealing that extreme melanin-based phenotypes can display different physiological states depending on the environment. Yet, the hormonal mechanism underlying this phenomenon is poorly understood. One novel hypothesis proposes that these covariations stem from pleiotropic effects of the melanocortin system. Melanocortins are post-translationally modified bioactive peptides derived from the POMC prohormone that are involved in melanogenesis, anti-inflammation, energy homeostasis and stress responses. Thus, differential regulation of fitness components in relation to environmental factors by pale and dark melanic individuals may be due to colour-specific regulation of the POMC prohormone. Accordingly, we found that the degree of reddish melanic colouration was negatively correlated with blood circulating levels of the POMC prohormone in female tawny owls (Strix aluco) rearing a brood for which the size was experimentally reduced, but not when enlarged, and in females located in rich but not in poor territories. Our findings support the hypothesis that the widespread links between melanin-based colouration and fitness components may be mediated, at least in part, by the melanocortin system.

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