Population-Specific Covariation between Immune Function and Color of Nesting Male Threespine Stickleback.


Multiple biological processes can generate sexual selection on male visual signals such as color. For example, females may prefer colorful males because those males are more readily detected (perceptual bias), or because male color conveys information about male quality and associated direct or indirect benefits to females. For example, male threespine stickleback often exhibit red throat coloration, which females prefer both because red is more visible in certain environments, and red color is correlated with male immune function and parasite load. However, not all light environments favor red nuptial coloration: more tannin-stained water tends to favor the evolution of a melanic male phenotype. Do such population differences in stickleback male color, driven by divergent light environments, lead to changes in the relationship between color and immunity? Here, we show that, within stickleback populations, multiple components of male color (brightness and hue of four body parts) are correlated with multiple immune variables (ROS production, phagocytosis rates, and lymphocyte:leukocyte ratios). Some of these color-immune associations persist across stickleback populations with very different male color patterns, whereas other color-immune associations are population-specific. Overall, lakes with red males exhibit stronger color-immune covariance while melanic male populations exhibit weak if any color-immune associations. Our finding that color-immunity relationships are labile implies that any evolution of male color traits (e.g., due to female perceptual bias in a given light environment), can alter the utility of color as an indicator of male quality.

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