Imperfect past and present progressive: beak color reflects early-life and adult exposure to antigen

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Secondary sexual traits may convey information about individual condition. We assessed the capacity for immune challenge with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) or keyhole limpet hemocyanin (KLH) during the prenatal and early postnatal stages to impact beak color development and expression in captive zebra finches. In addition, we tested whether adult immune challenge impacted beak color, and if early-life experience was influential. Immune challenge with KLH early in life slowed development of red beak coloration, and males challenged with KLH as nestlings had reduced red coloration as adults. Following adult KLH challenge, males exhibited a decline in beak redness. Birds challenged with KLH during development produced more anti-KLH antibodies after adult challenge. There was a significant interaction between young treatment and anti-KLH antibody production; for males not challenged with KLH early in life, individuals that mounted a weaker antibody response lost more red coloration after challenge than males mounting a stronger antibody response. Based on models of avian vision, these differences in beak coloration should be detectable to the finches. In contrast to previous studies, we found no effect of early-life or adult challenge with LPS on any aspects of beak coloration. These results provide evidence that beak color reflects developmental and current conditions, and that the signal is linked to critical physiological processes.

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