Plumage colour and the expression of stress-related genes in gull chicks

Diaz-Real, J., Kim, S.Y. & Velando, A., 2017. Plumage colour and the expression of stress‐related genes in gull chicks. Journal of Avian Biology. DOI: 10.1111/jav.01460

In many bird populations, individuals show remarkable differences in feather colouration, which are often linked to individual differences in physiological traits, but the mechanisms maintaining this covariation are still unclear. Here, we investigate the variability of the melanic colouration in yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis) chicks. In this species, hatchlings show high variability in the number and colour intensity of black spots in their plumage. In gulls, last-laid eggs receive less antioxidants but higher levels of androgens than first eggs. We first explored whether these remarkable differences within the clutch affect the feather melanisation during embryo development. Melanic colouration was not related to laying order, but nestling males were darker and had a larger spotted area than nestling females. In chicks hatching from first-laid eggs, the spot size and spot lightness were negatively correlated. We also explored the effect of the developmental environment, through a cross-fostering experiment, on the expression of five stress-related genes (SOD2, ALKBH3, HSPA8, NLRC5 and TRIAP1) and their link with melanic colouration. Post-hatching hierarchy did not affect the expression of any of the tested genes, but paler chicks showed reduced expression in some studied genes (SOD2, ALKBH3 and HSPA8) in comparison to darker chicks. Our results suggest that melanic chicks suffer less stress during development.