Carotenoid-based status signalling in red-shouldered widowbirds (Euplectes axillaris): Epaulet size and redness affect captive and territorial competition

Sarah R. Pryke*, Staffan Andersson

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    85 Citations (Scopus)


    In breeding plumage, the African male red-shouldered widowbirds (Euplectes axillaris) are black except for red carotenoid-based epaulets ('shoulder patches'), similar to the well-studied American red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). To experimentally test the signal function of the red epaulets in male red-shouldered widowbirds, we manipulated epaulet colour and size (within natural variation), and observed the effects in two competitive contexts. First, in captivity, unfamiliar males with epaulets of different size or redness were staged in dyadic contests over food. Only epaulet manipulations significantly affected contest outcome; red epaulet males out-competed orange and control males, which in turn dominated blackened (no epaulet) males. Epaulet size manipulations had particularly strong effects; enlarged epaulet males vigorously defeated smaller epaulet males within colour treatments, whereas the independent effect of 'redness' (i.e., within size treatments) was much weaker: Second, in a field experiment, epaulets were manipulated prior to territory establishment. Males with enlarged epaulets acquired territories, whereas most males with blackened or reduced signals failed to obtain territories. Furthermore, among the territorial males, birds with enlarged epaulets defended larger territories and spent less time in boundary signalling, yet they received fewer intrusions from conspecifics. In contrast, epaulet manipulations had no effect on either female visitation rates or subsequent female settlement. These results concur with recent studies and suggest that the carotenoid-based epaulets of red-shouldered widowbirds are status signals, sexually selected through male contest competition for territories.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)393-401
    Number of pages9
    JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2003


    • Carotenoid coloration
    • Red-shouldered widowbird
    • Sexual selection
    • Status signalling


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