Is melanin a defense against feather-feeding lice?

Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2006
Authors:Bush, SE, Kim, D, Moyer, BR, Lever, J, Clayton, DH
Pagination:153 - 161
Date Published:2006
Keywords:color, Columba, Columbiformes, ectoparasites, livia, pigeon, plumage, preening, rock

The adaptive basis of plumage color has received much attention, including the finding that color can reveal information about parasite loads to potential mates. A related possibility, that color may be a direct defense against parasites, has received less attention. Melanin makes feathers tough and more resistant to wear and tear. Melanin may also make feathers more difficult for feather-feeding parasites to eat. We explored the role of melanin as a possible ectoparasite defense using Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) and their feather-feeding lice (Insecta: Phthiraptera). Rock Pigeons are an ideal species for such work because of the extreme variation in the feathers of different color morphs, ranging from melanin-rich black to melanin-free white individuals. We tested the effect of melanin on lice in several ways. First, we compared the natural louse loads of free-ranging pigeons to see whether the more melanistic color morphs had fewer lice. We also did laboratory assays in which we measured the survival and reproductive success of pigeon lice forced to feed on feathers with different amounts of melanin, and we compared the quantities of feather material consumed by these lice. Finally, we tested the habitat and feeding preferences of lice exposed to feathers with different amounts of melanin. None of our tests revealed any effect of melanin on lice. We conclude that melanin is not, at least in Rock Pigeons, a defense against feather lice.

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