Avian eggshell coloration predicts shell-matrix protoporphyrin content

Charles F. Thompson, Kara E. Hodges, Nathan T. Mortimer, Alysia D. Vrailas-Mortimer, Scott K. Sakaluk, Mark E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Avian eggshell pigmentation may provide information about a female’s physiological condition, in particular her state of oxidative balance. Previously we found that female House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon Vieillot, 1809) with lighter, less-maculated, and redder ground-colored shells were older and produced heavier offspring than females laying more-maculated and browner eggs. The strong pro-oxidant protoporphyrin is responsible for this species’ eggshell pigmentation, so differences in pigmentary coloration may be related to eggshell protoporphyrin content and reflect female oxidative balance and condition during egg formation. Therefore, we tested the assumption that egg-surface coloration is related to the amount of protoporphyrin in the shell matrix. We analyzed digital photographs of eggs to determine maculation coverage as a measure of the overall ground coloration of the egg and its red-, green-, and blue-channel pixel values. Pigments were then extracted from these same eggs and analyzed using high-performance liquid chromatography. There was a strong, positive relationship between eggshell redness and protoporphyrin content of eggshells, but no relationship between percent maculation and protoporphyrin content. Thus, when older, larger females deposit more protoporphyrin in their eggshells, this may reflect a tolerance for high levels of circulating protoporphyrin or an effective mechanism for off-loading protoporphyrin into the eggshell matrix.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-81
Number of pages5
JournalCanadian journal of zoology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2022


  • Eggs
  • Eggshell pigmentation
  • Female quality
  • HPLC
  • House Wren
  • Troglodytes aedon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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