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Oxidative stress, the physiological condition whereby the production of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species overwhelms the capacity of antioxidant defences, causes damage to key bio-molecules. It has been implicated in many diseases, and is proposed as a reliable currency in the trade-off between individual health and ornamentation. Whether oxidative stress mediates the expression of carotenoid-based signals, which are among the commonest signals of many birds, fish and reptiles, remains controversial. In the present study, we explored interactions between parasites, oxidative stress and the carotenoid-based ornamentation of red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus. We tested whether removing nematode parasites influenced both oxidative balance (levels of oxidative damage and circulating antioxidant defences) and carotenoid-based ornamentation. At the treatment group level, parasite purging enhanced the size and colouration of ornaments but did not significantly affect circulating carotenoids, antioxidant defences or oxidative damage. However, relative changes in these traits among individuals indicated that males with a greater number of parasites prior to treatment (parasite purging) showed a greater increase in the levels of circulating carotenoids and antioxidants, and a greater decrease in oxidative damage, than those with initially fewer parasites. At the individual level, a greater increase in carotenoid pigmentation was associated with a greater reduction in oxidative damage. Therefore, an individual's ability to express a carotenoid-based ornament appeared to be linked to its current oxidative balance and susceptibility to oxidative stress. Our experimental results suggest that oxidative stress can mediate the impact of parasites on carotenoid-based signals, and we discuss possible mechanisms linking carotenoid-based ornaments to oxidative stress.


  • The work was funded by a NERC Advanced Fellowship and a grant from the Ministerio de Educacion y Ciencia (Spain) to F.M.; a NERC grant (NE/D000602/1) to S.P., a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to J.B.; and a postdoctoral grant from JCCM (07/028-A) to L.P.R.


    plasma concentration of carotenoids
    plasma concentration of malondialdehyde
    reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, respectively
    total antioxidant status of plasma
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