Condition‐dependence, pleiotropy and the handicap principle of sexual selection in melanin‐based colouration

Research paper by Alexandre Roulin

Indexed on: 14 Mar '16Published on: 28 Jan '15Published in: Biological Reviews


The signalling function of melanin‐based colouration is debated. Sexual selection theory states that ornaments should be costly to produce, maintain, wear or display to signal quality honestly to potential mates or competitors. An increasing number of studies supports the hypothesis that the degree of melanism covaries with aspects of body condition (e.g. body mass or immunity), which has contributed to change the initial perception that melanin‐based colour ornaments entail no costs. Indeed, the expression of many (but not all) melanin‐based colour traits is weakly sensitive to the environment but strongly heritable suggesting that these colour traits are relatively cheap to produce and maintain, thus raising the question of how such colour traits could signal quality honestly. Here I review the production, maintenance and wearing/displaying costs that can generate a correlation between melanin‐based colouration and body condition, and consider other evolutionary mechanisms that can also lead to covariation between colour and body condition. Because genes controlling melanic traits can affect numerous phenotypic traits, pleiotropy could also explain a linkage between body condition and colouration. Pleiotropy may result in differently coloured individuals signalling different aspects of quality that are maintained by frequency‐dependent selection or local adaptation. Colouration may therefore not signal absolute quality to potential mates or competitors (e.g. dark males may not achieve a higher fitness than pale males); otherwise genetic variation would be rapidly depleted by directional selection. As a consequence, selection on heritable melanin‐based colouration may not always be directional, but mate choice may be conditional to environmental conditions (i.e. context‐dependent sexual selection). Despite the interest of evolutionary biologists in the adaptive value of melanin‐based colouration, its actual role in sexual selection is still poorly understood.