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Hoopoes color their eggs with antimicrobial uropygial secretions

Soler, Juan J., Martín-Vivaldi, M., Peralta-Sánchez, J. M., Arco, L., Juárez-García-Pelayo, N.
Naturwissenschaften 2014 v.101 no.9 pp. 697-705
Bacillus licheniformis, antimicrobial properties, birds, color, cosmetics, egg shell, eggs, feathers, females, nests, secretion, sexual selection, uropygial gland
Uropygial gland secretions are used as cosmetics by some species of birds to color and enhance properties of feathers and teguments, which may signal individual quality. Uropygial secretions also reach eggshells during incubation and, therefore, may influence the coloration of birds’ eggs, a trait that has attracted the attention of evolutionary biologists for more than one century. The color of hoopoe eggs typically changes along incubation, from bluish-gray to greenish-brown. Here, we test experimentally the hypothesis that dark uropygial secretion of females is responsible for such drastic color change. Moreover, since uropygial secretion of hoopoes has antimicrobial properties, we also explore the association between color and antimicrobial activity of the uropygial secretion of females. We found that eggs stayed bluish-gray in nests where female access to the uropygial secretion was experimentally blocked. Furthermore, experimental eggs that were maintained in incubators and manually smeared with uropygial secretion experienced similar color changes that naturally incubated eggs did, while control eggs that were not in contact with the secretions did not experience such color changes. All these results strongly support the hypothesis that female hoopoes use their uropygial gland secretion to color the eggs. Moreover, saturation of the uropygial secretion was associated with antimicrobial activity against Bacillus licheniformis. Given the known antimicrobial potential of uropygial secretions of birds, this finding opens the possibility that in scenarios of sexual selection, hoopoes in particular and birds in general signal antimicrobial properties of their uropygial secretion by mean of changes in egg coloration along incubation.