Carotenoid-based coloration and ultraviolet reflectance of the sexual ornaments of grouse.
Among the most familiar sexual signals are red, yellow, and orange sexual traits pigmented by carotenoids. Many birds can detect near-ultraviolet (UV) light, and UV signals can play key roles in mate choice. Grouse (Tetraonidae) exhibit bright carotenoid-dependent sexual ornaments, their supra-orbital combs, which to humans appear orange-red. Combs also reflect in the UV, which is not visible to humans but is likely to be visible to grouse. In male red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus, we show that comb UV reflectance decreases with increasing comb size and redness. By removing the epidermis of combs, where carotenoid pigments are, we show that the UV reflectance is a property of the dermis, underneath the red pigmented epidermis. Carotenoid pigmentation of combs acted as a mask to reduce reflectance by the dermis in the range 400–550 nm and in the UV, 300–400 nm. Patagium skin (non-ornamental skin under the wing) also reflects in the UV, but epidermis removal on this bare part tended to reduce UV reflectance, whereas removal of the red epidermis of combs increased UV reflectance. Males in better condition (greater body mass relative to size) had bigger and redder combs, but with less UV. Thus, carotenoid pigments of grouse combs are deposited on a white background with significant UV reflectance, which can influence how the signal is perceived by conspecifics. Carotenoid-based traits exhibit UV reflectance in a number of species, but how UV reflectance and carotenoid pigmentation influence colour remains little known for integumentary ornaments compared to plumage traits. UV vision is not uncommon in birds and other animals, so future studies should investigate how UV reflectance influences the perception of carotenoid-based signals of quality.