Eumelanin-based coloration and fitness parameters in birds: a meta-analysis

Meunier, Joël ; Figueiredo Pinto, Susana ; Burri, Reto ; Roulin, Alexandre

In: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 2011, vol. 65, no. 4, p. 559-567

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    Although melanin is the most common pigment in animal integuments, the adaptive function of variation in melanin-based coloration remains poorly understood. The individual fitness returns associated with melanin pigments can be variable across species as these pigments can have physical and biological protective properties and genes involved in melanogenesis may vary in the intensity of pleiotropic effects. Moreover, dark and pale coloration can also enhance camouflage in alternative habitats and melanin-based coloration can be involved in social interactions. We investigated whether darker or paler individuals achieve a higher fitness in birds, a taxon wherein associations between melanin-based coloration and fitness parameters have been studied in a large number of species. A meta-analysis showed that the degree of melanin-based coloration was not significantly associated with laying date, clutch size, brood size, and survival across 26 species. Similar results were found when restricting the analyses to non-sexually dimorphic birds, colour polymorphic and monomorphic species, in passerines and non-passerines and in species for which inter-individual variation in melanism is due to colour intensity. However, eumelanic coloration was positively associated with clutch and brood size in sexually dimorphic species and those that vary in the size of black patches, respectively. Given that greater extent of melanin-based coloration was positively associated with reproductive parameters and survival in some species but negatively in other species, we conclude that in birds the sign and magnitude of selection exerted on melanin-based coloration is species- or trait-specific