Protoporphyrin-based eggshell pigmentation is associated with female plumage colouration and predicts offspring sex ratio in the barn swallow

Corti, Margherita; Romano, Andrea; Costanzo, Alessandra; Bentz, Alexandra; Navara, Kristen; Parolini, Marco; Saino, Nicola; Rubolini, D.

29 March 2018

Inter- and intraspecific variation in eggshell colouration has long fascinated evolutionary biologists. Among species, such variation may accomplish different functions, the most obvious of which is camouflage and background matching. Within species, it has been proposed that inter-female variation in eggshell pigmentation patterns can reflect egg, maternal or paternal traits and hence may provide cues to conspecifics about egg, maternal or paternal phenotypic quality. However, the relationship between protoporphyrin-based eggshell pigmentation and egg or maternal/paternal traits appears to be highly variable among species. We investigated patterns of intraspecific variation in Eurasian barn swallow (Hirundo r. rustica) protoporphyrin-based eggshell pigmentation, and analysed its association with egg and clutch characteristics, maternal/paternal phenotypic traits and parental feeding effort. Eggshell pigmentation pattern significantly varied between breeding colonies, was significantly repeatable in clutches laid by the same females in different years (intraclass correlation coefficient ranging between 0.56 and 0.63), but it was not significantly associated with egg traits, such as position in the laying sequence, egg mass, yolk testosterone concentration and antioxidant capacity. It was weakly or non-significantly associated with female and male traits (sexual ornaments), but females laying darker (higher pigment intensity) first clutches had higher hatching success, suggesting that eggshell pigment intensity may predict fitness. Nevertheless, males did not significantly modulate their parental nestling feeding effort accordingly. In addition, females with darker breast plumage colouration (a melanin-based trait related to fitness) laid highly protoporphyrin-covered eggs, suggesting the presence of a previously unappreciated link between protoporphyrin biosynthesis and plumage melanisation. Moreover, the proportion of male offspring increased in clutches originating from highly protoporphyrin-covered eggs, suggesting that parents could acquire visual cues about their future brood sex composition before egg hatching. Our results support the idea that intraspecific signalling via eggshell pigmentation is a species-specific rather than a general feature of avian taxa.