Early-life immune activation increases song complexity and alters phenotypic associations between sexual ornaments

Loren Merrill, Madeleine F. Naylor, Merria Dalimonte, Sean McLaughlin, Tara E. Stewart, Jennifer L. Grindstaff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Early-life adversity can have long-lasting effects on physiological, behavioural, cognitive, and somatic processes. Consequently, these effects may alter an organism's life-history strategy and reproductive tactics. In response to early-life immune activation, we quantified levels of the acute phase protein haptoglobin (Hp) during development in male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). Then, we examined the long-term impacts of early-life immune activation on an important static sexual signal, song complexity, as well as effects of early-life immune activation on the relationship between song complexity and a dynamic sexual signal, beak coloration. Finally, we performed mate-choice trials to determine if male early-life experience impacted female preference. Challenge with keyhole limpet haemocyanin (KLH) resulted in increased song complexity compared with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) treatment or the control. Hp levels were inversely correlated with song complexity. Moreover, KLH-treatment resulted in negative associations between the two sexual signals (beak coloration and song complexity). Females demonstrated some preference for KLH-treated males over controls and for control males over LPS-treated males in mate choice trials. Developmental immune activation has variable effects on the expression of secondary sexual traits in adulthood, including enhancing the expression of some traits. Because developmental levels of Hp and adult song complexity were correlated, future studies should explore a potential role for exposure to inflammation during development on song learning. Early-life adversity may differentially impact static vs. dynamic signals. The use of phenotypic correlations can be a powerful tool for examining the impact of early-life experience on the associations among different traits, including sexual signals. A plain language summary is available for this article.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2263-2273
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2017


  • INHS
  • stressor
  • zebra finch
  • KLH
  • beak colour
  • sexual selection
  • haptoglobin
  • mate choice
  • signal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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