Carotenoids provide animals with many fitness benefits through increased mating success, immune function, gamete quality, and antioxidant capacity. Despite these benefits, carotenoids are not utilized equally by all animals, implying trade-offs associated with the pigments; although, few studies have quantified fitness costs of carotenoid pigmentation. Salmon are known for their conspicuous red coloration; however, amongst Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), a natural genetic color polymorphism exists (red and white morphs) which results in carotenoid-based color differences in eggs and other tissues. Although the fitness benefit of egg carotenoid content on egg incubation survival has been demonstrated, carotenoid pigmentation also results in highly visible eggs vulnerable to predation. Therefore, although white Chinook salmon eggs experience costs in terms of viability, a potential benefit in terms of reduced predation could help explain the maintenance of the polymorphism. Here, using red and white eggs from wild Chinook salmon, we show that increased carotenoid content of salmon eggs leads to greater predation risk. We found that 2 populations of wild-type rainbow trout (O. mykiss; an ecologically relevant predator) showed a significant bias for red eggs over white eggs under choice experiments, where red eggs were consumed first twice as often and significantly faster than white eggs. Our study suggests that trade-offs between red and white Chinook salmon during the egg stage provide an evolutionary mechanism promoting the maintenance of the unique Chinook salmon color polymorphism in nature, while also, for the first time, demonstrating a direct fitness cost of carotenoids in salmon.
Lehnert, Sarah J.; Devlin, Robert H.; Pitcher, Trevor E.; Semeniuk, Christina A.D.; and Heath, Daniel D., "Redder isn’t always better: cost of carotenoids in Chinook salmon eggs" (2017). Behavioral Ecology, 28, 2, 549-555.
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