Wildfire Affects Expression of Male Sexual Plumage Through Suppressed Testosterone Circulation in a Tropical Songbird

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Biological Sciences


Natural disturbances like drought and wildfires are expected to increase in prevalence, so understanding how organisms are affected is a key goal for conservationists and biologists alike. While many studies have illustrated long-term effects of perturbations on survival and reproduction, little is known of short-term effects to physiology and sexual signal expression. Ornamental traits have been proposed as reliable indicators of environmental health, yet studies are lacking in the context of natural disturbances. Here we present short-term (7–65 days) responses of male red-backed fairywrens Malurus melanocephalus to wildfire near the onset of the typical breeding season. Young males of this species are characterized by plastic expression of sexual plumage phenotypes depending on circulating testosterone and body condition. Using two populations with fairywren captures before and after separate wildfires we illustrate that wildfire suppressed molt into ornamented plumage. Neither baseline plasma corticosterone or furcular fat stores were affected by fire. However, fire seemed to interfere with the termporal increase in plasma testosterone during the pre-breeding season, leading to a lower proportion of males molting into ornamented plumage. Collectively, these findings suggest that wildfires inhibit or greatly delay acquisition of ornamentation in males through enduring suppression of testosterone circulation.



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Journal of Avian Biology

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