Perez, C., Munilla, I., Lopez-Alonso, M. & Velando, A. Sublethal effects on seabirds after the Prestige oil-spill are mirrored in sexual signals. Biology Letters 6, 33–35 (2010).
It has been suggested that sexual signals may be a useful measure of environmental quality as they represent the sum of environmental pressures on the animal. Accordingly, it has been proposed that carotenoid-based coloration may be especially valuable in monitoring and detecting the sublethal effects of toxic pollutants in the environment. Here, we evaluate whether the carotenoid-based coloration in the bill of adult yellow-legged gulls reflects oil-induced sublethal effects in breeding colonies affected by the Prestige oil spill. In 2004, we took blood samples from 27 adult birds at four insular breeding colonies located in the pathway of the Prestige oil spill. We measured the size of the red bill spot area and analysed plasma biochemical parameters indicative of sublethal effects of oil contamination in gulls, including glucose, total protein, creatinine, inorganic phosphorus, aspartate aminotransferase (AST) and gamma-glutamyl transferase. We showed that the size of their red bill spot area was positively related to body condition, while negatively related with AST levels, an enzyme that is commonly used as an indication of hepatic damage in birds. Hence, the present study provides support for the idea that carotenoid-based colour integuments may be a useful measure of environmental quality.