Honest sexual signalling mediated by parasite and testosterone effects on oxidative balance

Francois Mougeot, Jesus Martinez-Padilla, Lucy M.I. Webster, Jonathan D. Blount, Lorenzo Perez-Rodriguez, Stuart Brannon Piertney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Citations (Scopus)


Extravagant ornaments evolved to advertise their bearers' quality, the honesty of the signal being ensured by the cost paid to produce or maintain it. The oxidation handicap hypothesis (OHH) proposes that a main cost of testosterone-dependent ornamentation is oxidative stress, a condition whereby the production of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (ROS/RNS) overwhelms the capacity of antioxidant defences. ROS/RNS are unstable, very reactive by-products of normal metabolic processes that can cause extensive damage to key biomolecules (cellular proteins, lipids and DNA). Oxidative stress has been implicated in the aetiology of many diseases and could link ornamentation and genetic variation in fitness-related traits. We tested the OHH in a free-living bird, the red grouse. We show that elevated testosterone enhanced ornamentation and increased circulating antioxidant levels, but caused oxidative damage. Males with smaller ornaments suffered more oxidative damage than those with larger ornaments when forced to increase testosterone levels, consistent with a handicap mechanism. Parasites depleted antioxidant defences, caused oxidative damage and reduced ornament expression. Oxidative damage extent and the ability of males to increase antioxidant defences also explained the impacts of testosterone and parasites on ornamentation within treatment groups. Because oxidative stress is intimately linked to immune function, parasite resistance and fitness, it provides a reliable currency in the trade-off between individual health and ornamentation. The costs induced by oxidative stress can apply to a wide range of signals, which are testosterone-dependent or coloured by pigments with antioxidant properties.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1093-1100
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London. B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1659
Publication statusPublished - 22 Mar 2009


  • oxidative stress
  • antioxidant
  • ornament
  • trade-off
  • red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus
  • Trichostrongylus tenuis
  • Lagopus-lagopus-scoticus
  • immunocompetence handicap hypothesis
  • male red grouse
  • induced immunosuppression
  • colorful songbird
  • stress
  • antioxidants
  • carotenoids
  • helth
  • activation


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