Carotenoid coloration and health status of urban Eurasian kestrels (Falco tinnunculus)

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As the world experiences rapid urban expansion, natural landscapes are being transformed into cities at an alarming rate. Consequently, urbanization is identified as one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time, yet we lack a clear understanding of how urbanization affects free-living organisms. Urbanization leads to habitat fragmentation and increased impervious surfaces affecting for example availability and quality of food. Urbanization is also associated with increased pollution levels that can affect organisms directly, via ecophysiological constraints and indirectly by disrupting trophic interactions in multi-species networks. Birds are highly mobile, while an individual is not necessarily exposed to urban stressors around the clock, but nestlings of altricial birds are. Such a city-dwelling species with a long nestling phase is the Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) in Vienna, Austria, which forage on a diverse diet differing in composition from rural habitats. Furthermore, prey items vary in nutritional value and contents of micronutrients like carotenoids, which might impact the nestlings’ health. Carotenoids are pigments that are incorporated into integument tissues but also have antioxidant and immunostimulatory capacity, resulting in a trade-off between these functions. In nestlings these pigments function in parent-offspring communication or sibling competition by advertising an individual’s physical or physiological condition. Anthropogenic disturbance and pollutants could have disruptive effects on the coloration of these traits. In this study, we measured carotenoid based coloration and other indicators of individual health (body condition and susceptibility to the ectoparasite Carnus hemapterus) of 154 nestling kestrels (n = 91 nests) along an urban gradient from 2010 to 2015. We found skin yellowness of nestlings from nest-sites in the city-center to be least pronounced. This result might indicate that inner-city nestlings are strongly affected by urban stressors and depleted their stores of dietary carotenoids for health-related functions rather than coloration. In addition, skin yellowness intensified with age and was stronger pronounced in earlier nests. Since the immune system of nestlings is still developing, younger chicks might need more antioxidants to combat environmental stress. Additionally, parasite infection intensity was highest in nestlings with less intense skin yellowness (paler or less yellow pigmented integuments) and in earlier nests of the season. In combination with results from previous studies, our findings provide further support for the low quality of the inner-city habitat, both in terms of productivity and individual health.




Sumasgutner, P., Adrion, M., & Gamauf, A. (2018). Carotenoid coloration and health status of urban Eurasian kestrels (Falco tinnunculus). PLoS ONE, 13(2).

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