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Open Access Research article

Mate choice for a male carotenoid-based ornament is linked to female dietary carotenoid intake and accumulation

Matthew B Toomey12* and Kevin J McGraw1

Author Affiliations

1 School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501 USA

2 Division of Neuropathology, Washington University School of Medicine, MO 63110, Saint Louis

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:3  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-3

Published: 10 January 2012



The coevolution of male traits and female mate preferences has led to the elaboration and diversification of sexually selected traits; however the mechanisms that mediate trait-preference coevolution are largely unknown. Carotenoid acquisition and accumulation are key determinants of the expression of male sexually selected carotenoid-based coloration and a primary mechanism maintaining the honest information content of these signals. Carotenoids also influence female health and reproduction in ways that may alter the costs and benefits of mate choice behaviours and thus provide a potential biochemical link between the expression of male traits and female preferences. To test this hypothesis, we manipulated the dietary carotenoid levels of captive female house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) and assessed their mate choice behavior in response to color-manipulated male finches.


Females preferred to associate with red males, but carotenoid supplementation did not influence the direction or strength of this preference. Females receiving a low-carotenoid diet were less responsive to males in general, and discrimination among the colorful males was positively linked to female plasma carotenoid levels at the beginning of the study when the diet of all birds was carotenoid-limited.


Although female preference for red males was not influenced by carotenoid intake, changes in mating responsiveness and discrimination linked to female carotenoid status may alter how this preference is translated into choice. The reddest males, with the most carotenoid rich plumage, tend to pair early in the breeding season. If carotenoid-related variations in female choice behaviour shift the timing of pairing, then they have the potential to promote assortative mating by carotenoid status and drive the evolution of carotenoid-based male plumage coloration.