Carotenoids are responsible for much of the yellow, orange and red pigmentation in the animal kingdom, and the importance of such coloration as an honest signal of individual quality has received widespread attention. In particular, owing to the multiple roles of carotenoids as pigments, antioxidants and immunostimulants, carotenoid-based coloration has been suggested to advertise an individual's antioxidant or immune defence capacity. However, it has recently been argued that carotenoid-based signals may in fact be advertising the availability of different antioxidants, many of which (including various vitamins, antioxidant enzymes and minerals) are colourless and so would be uninformative as components of a visual signal, yet often have greater biological activity than carotenoids. We tested this hypothesis by feeding male sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) a diet containing a fixed level of carotenoids and either low or high, but biologically realistic levels of the colourless antioxidant vitamins C and E. High-antioxidant diet males produced significantly more intensely coloured (but not larger) carotenoid-based regions of nuptial coloration and were preferred over size-matched males of the opposite diet treatment in mate-choice trials. Furthermore, there were positive correlations between an individual's somatic antioxidant activity and signal intensity. Our data suggest that carotenoid-based ornaments may honestly signal an individual's availability of non-carotenoid antioxidants, allowing females to make adaptive mate-choice decisions.
Keywords: α-tocopherol, ascorbic acid, oxidative stress, sexual signalling