Red ornamentation is an important sexual signal in male red-backed fairywrens. Elevated testosterone in their bodies upregulates carotenoid-related genes, such as CYP2J19, in the liver and red feather follicles to produce red plumage.
Carotenoid pigments underlie most of the red, orange, and yellow visual signals used in mate choice in vertebrates. However, many of the underlying processes surrounding the production of carotenoid-based traits remain unclear due to the complex nature of carotenoid uptake, metabolism, and deposition across tissues. Here, we leverage the ability to experimentally induce the production of a carotenoid-based red plumage patch in the red-backed fairywren (Malurus melanocephalus), a songbird in which red plumage is an important male sexual signal. We experimentally elevated testosterone in unornamented males lacking red plumage to induce the production of ornamentation and compared gene expression in both the liver and feather follicles between unornamented control males, testosterone-implanted males, and naturally ornamented males. We show that testosterone upregulates the expression of CYP2J19, a gene known to be involved in ketocarotenoid metabolism, and a putative carotenoid processing gene (ELOVL6) in the liver, and also regulates the expression of putative carotenoid transporter genes in red feather follicles on the back, including ABCG1. In black feathers, carotenoid-related genes are downregulated and melanin genes upregulated, but we find that carotenoids are still present in the feathers. This may be due to the activity of the carotenoid-cleaving enzyme BCO2 in black feathers. Our study provides a first working model of a pathway for carotenoid-based trait production in free-living birds, implicates testosterone as a key regulator of carotenoid-associated gene expression, and suggests hormones may coordinate the many processes that underlie the production of these traits across multiple tissues.
Figure shows a male red-backed fairywren in non-breeding (left), molting (middle), and breeding (right) plumage. Photos © Sarah Khalil.