Almasi, B., A. Roulin, F. Korner-Nievergelt, S. Jenni-Eiermann & L. Jenni (2012)

Coloration signals the ability to cope with elevated stress hormones: effects of corticosterone on growth of barn owls are associated with melanism.

Further information

J. Evol. Biol. 25 (6): 1189–1199



Stressful situations during development can shape the phenotype for life by provoking a trade-off between development and survival. Stress hormones, mainly glucocorticoids, play an important orchestrating role in this trade-off. Hence, how stress sensitive an animal is critically determines the phenotype and ultimately fitness. In several species, darker eumelanic individuals are less sensitive to stressful conditions than less eumelanic conspecifics, which may be due to the pleiotropic effects of genes affecting both coloration and physiological traits. We experimentally tested whether the degree of melaninbased coloration is associated with the sensitivity to an endocrine response to stressful situations in the barn owl. We artificially administered the mediator of a hormonal stress response, corticosterone, to nestlings to examine the prediction that corticosterone-induced reduction in growth rate is more pronounced in light eumelanic nestlings than in darker nest mates. To examine whether such an effect may be genetically determined, we swapped hatchlings between randomly chosen pairs of nests. We first showed that corticosterone affects growth and, thus, shapes the phenotype. Second, we found that under corticosterone administration, nestlings with large black spots grew better than nestlings with small black spots. As in the barn owl the expression of eumelanin-based coloration is heritable and not sensitive to environmental conditions, it is therefore a reliable, genetically based sign of the ability to cope with an increase in blood corticosterone level.
Keywords: barn owl, corticosterone, glucocorticoids, growth, melanin, polymorphism, stress.