The immunocompetence handicap hypothesis proposes that testosterone mediates a trade-off between sexual signalling and immunocompetence in males. Such a trade-off could favour the reliability of sexual signals on the basis that testosterone required for signal expression also promotes immunosuppression. However, the immunosuppressive activity of testosterone has not been convincingly demonstrated. We propose that the optimal solution to the testosterone-mediated trade-off should change with age, explaining ambiguous results in the past. Testosterone and ageing would promote two simultaneous immunosuppressive challenges unaffordable for low-quality males. Oxidative stress, as intimately related to ageing and immunosenescence, could contribute to enhance signal reliability. In this context, traits coloured by carotenoids (yellow-red traits) could play a crucial role due to the immunostimulatory and antioxidant properties of these pigments. Here, old and middle-aged male red-legged partridges were treated with testosterone or manipulated as controls. In the presence of high-testosterone levels, middle-aged males increased both circulating carotenoid levels and colour expression, whereas their cell-mediated immunity was not significantly altered. However, in old males, neither circulating carotenoids nor sexual signalling increased when treated with testosterone, but immunosuppression was detected. The link between testosterone and carotenoids could favour the reliability of sexual signals throughout the life.
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