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Carotenoid-based sexual ornaments are hypothesized to be reliable signals of male quality, based on an allocation trade-off between the use of carotenoids as pigments and their use in antioxidant defence against reactive oxygen species. Carotenoids appear to be poor antioxidants in vivo, however, and it is not clear whether variation in ornament expression is correlated with measures of oxidative stress (OXS) under natural conditions. We used single-cell gel electrophoresis to assay oxidative damage to erythrocyte DNA in the common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), a sexually dichromatic warbler in which sexual selection favours components of the males' yellow 'bib'. We found that the level of DNA damage sustained by males predicted their overwinter survivorship and was reflected in the quality of their plumage. Males with brighter yellow bibs showed lower levels of DNA damage, both during the year the plumage was sampled (such that yellow brightness signalled current OXS) and during the previous year (such that yellow brightness signalled past OXS). We suggest that carotenoid-based ornaments can convey information about OXS to prospective mates and that further work exploring the proximate mechanism(s) linking OXS to coloration is warranted.

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