In many species of animals, red carotenoid-based coloration is produced by metabolizing yellow dietary pigments, and this red ornamentation can be an honest signal of individual quality. However, the physiological basis for associations between organism function and the metabolism of red ornamental carotenoids from yellow dietary carotenoids remains uncertain. A recent hypothesis posits that carotenoid metabolism depends on mitochondrial performance, with diminished red coloration resulting from altered mitochondrial aerobic respiration. To test for an association between mitochondrial respiration and red carotenoids, we held wild-caught, molting male house finches in either small bird cages or large flight cages to create environmental challenges during the period when red ornamental coloration is produced. We predicted that small cages would present a less favorable environment than large flight cages and that captivity itself would decrease both mitochondrial performance and the abundance of red carotenoids compared with free-living birds. We found that captive-held birds circulated fewer red carotenoids, showed increased mitochondrial respiratory rates, and had lower complex II respiratory control ratios – a metric associated with mitochondrial efficiency – compared with free-living birds, though we did not detect a difference in the effects of small cages versus large cages. Among captive individuals, the birds that circulated the highest concentrations of red carotenoids had the highest mitochondrial respiratory control ratio for complex II substrate. These data support the hypothesis that the metabolism of red carotenoid pigments is linked to mitochondrial aerobic respiration in the house finch, but the mechanisms for this association remain to be established.

You do not currently have access to this content.