The adaptive function of melanin-based plumage coloration to trace metals

M. Chatelain, J. Gasparini, L. Jacquin, A. Frantz

Abstract

Trace metals produced by anthropogenic activities are of major importance in urban areas and might constitute a new evolutionary force selecting for the ability to cope with their deleterious effects. Interestingly, melanin pigments are known to bind metal ions, thereby potentially sequestering them in inert body parts such as coat and feathers, and facilitating body detoxification. Thus, a more melanic plumage or coat coloration could bring a selective advantage for animals living in polluted areas. We tested this hypothesis by investigating the link between melanin-based coloration and zinc and lead concentrations in feathers of urban feral pigeons, both at capture time and after one year of captivity in standardized conditions. Results show that differently coloured pigeons had similar metal concentrations at capture time. Metal concentrations strongly decreased after one year in standardized conditions, and more melanic pigeons had higher concentrations of zinc (but not lead) in their feathers. This suggests that more melanic pigeons have a higher ability to store some metals in their feathers compared with their paler counterparts, which could explain their higher success in urbanized areas. Overall, this work suggests that trace metal pollution may exert new selective forces favouring more melanic phenotypes in polluted environments.

  • Received February 20, 2014.
  • Accepted March 10, 2014.
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