Curse of the black spot: spotting negatively correlates with fitness in black grouse Lyrurus tetrix

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There is growing evidence that achromatic plumage can act as honest indicators of male quality. In some species with areas of white plumage, black melanin spots can be found on parts of the feathers. The functional significance of these spots and the relationship with male quality is yet poorly understood. We investigated the relationship between black melanin spots in an otherwise totally white ornament, the undertail covert, in relation to age, fitness, and covariance with past and present expression of sexual traits, in the lekking black grouse Lyrurus tetrix. We found that spots at tips of feathers (tip spots) were negatively related to survival and reproductive success, and covaried negatively with current fighting rate. They also covaried positively with past fighting rate, suggesting high investment in fighting leads to carryover effects on male condition. In contrast, spots found further down the feather (vane spots) were unrelated to fitness and morphological and behavioral trait expression. Our results show that melanin spots can reflect overall male quality, but their adaptive value is dependent on their location on the feather. The exact drivers of melanin spot expression and how these link to male quality are currently unknown.

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