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Black beak tip coloration as a signal of phenotypic quality in a migratory seabird

Møller, A. P., Flensted-Jensen, E., Mardal, W.
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2007 v.61 no.10 pp. 1561-1571
North Atlantic Oscillation, Sterna, adults, beak, breeding, breeding season, breeding sites, clutch size, coastal water, color, environmental factors, fertilizer rates, melanin, migratory behavior, prediction, seabirds, wintering grounds, Antarctic region, Arctic region
Many different seabirds including terns have black color at the tip of their beak, but a yellow, orange, or red color of the rest of the beak. The tip of the beak of Arctic terns Sterna paradisaea is black, while the rest of the beak is deep red during the breeding season. We hypothesized that the black coloration of the tip of the beak is a reliable signal of phenotypic quality maintained by the costs of deposition of melanin. In this paper, we tested a number of predictions arising from this hypothesis. Consistent with the hypothesis, we found that (1) Arctic terns mated assortatively with respect to beak color score; (2) early breeding adults had larger beak color scores than late breeders; (3) clutch size was larger in adults with large beak color scores; (4) adults with a small beak color scores were more likely to die in the immediate future than individuals with large scores; and (5) beak color score was related to environmental conditions at the breeding grounds, as reflected by the North Atlantic Oscillation and the amount of fertilizer used in agriculture, and hence, leaking to coastal waters and environmental conditions at the Antarctic wintering areas as reflected by the Southern Oscillation. These findings suggest that beak color score provide reliable information about individual phenotypic quality.