Testosterone is involved in acquisition and maintenance of sexually selected male plumage in superb fairy-wrens, Malurus cyaneus

Anne Peters, Lee B. Astheimer, Christopher R J Boland, Andrew Cockburn

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Testosterone has been proposed as a physiological link between the level of sexual signalling and male condition. Bright plumage is one of the most noticeable sexual signals and is often used by females as a basis for mate choice. Yet bright male plumage is not necessarily testosterone dependent. We investigated the role of testosterone in the moult into seasonal nuptial plumage in male superb fairy-wrens. Early pre-nuptial moult is under intense intersexual selection and males can acquire the bright plumage any time between autumn and the next spring. Testosterone was always undetectable or very low in males in dull eclipse plumage. During the pre-nuptial moult, both the number of males with detectable testosterone and average testosterone levels increased sharply. High testosterone was more correlated with nuptial plumage than with presence of the cloacal protuberance (indicative of sperm storage). Subcutaneous testosterone implants always induced the pre-nuptial moult within 2-3 weeks after implantation, even well outside the natural time range of moulting. Moreover, removal of the implants before the nuptial plumage was completed, arrested the moult process. The evidence suggests that development of the nuptial plumage is testosterone dependent, although we cannot exclude that testosterone exerts its action after conversion to a metabolite such as oestrogen. Once the nuptial plumage was completed, all males maintained substantially elevated testosterone, sometimes months before the onset of breeding. These high levels could be necessary to maintain the plumage, and/or are involved in courtship displays. The results are discussed with respect to potential costs involved in acquiring and maintaining the nuptial plumage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)438-445
Number of pages8
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - May 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Honest signalling
  • Pre-nuptial moult
  • Sexual dichromatism
  • Sexual selection
  • Testosterone

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