Trade-offs between immune investment and sexual signaling in male mallards

Anne Peters, Kaspar Delhey, Angelika G. Denk, Bart Kempenaers

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89 Citations (Scopus)


Allocation trade-offs between the immune system and sexual traits are central to current sexual selection hypotheses but remain contentious. Such trade-offs could be brought about by the dual action of testosterone that stimulates sexual signals but also suppresses immune functions and/or by competition for carotenoids that can be deposited in ornaments or used as antioxidants in support of immune functions. We investigated the trade-off between investment in immunity and maintenance of testosterone, carotenoids, and sexually selected, carotenoid-based bill color in male mallards. Following a nonpathogenic immune challenge, facultative immune investment resulted in a syndrome of changes in allocation. Plasma carotenoids disappeared from circulation proportional to antibody production. In addition, the reflectance spectrum of the bill was affected; greater antibody production was associated with an increase in relative UV reflectance. Although changes in bill reflectance and plasma carotenoids were related, the relationship appeared more complex than direct competition with immunity. Finally, maintenance of testosterone was affected by immune investment: testosterone levels declined substantially when males produced more antibodies. Because males with high testosterone are preferred by females, the decline in testosterone, in addition to carotenoid depletion and effects on bill reflectance, could constitute a significant cost of immune investment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-59
Number of pages9
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Carotenoids
  • Handicap
  • Immunization
  • Immunocompetence
  • Sexual signal
  • Testosterone

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