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Does mitochondria function control pigmentation in male Zebra Finches?

Raised of $1,615 Goal
Ended on 12/02/16
Campaign Ended
  • $329
  • 21%
  • Finished
    on 12/02/16

About This Project

Zebra Finches use bright orange-red pigments called carotenoids, derived from their diet and made usable in mitochondria, in the colors of their beaks and legs. These displays are used by males to attract mates. Our aim is to lower the function of mitochondria in Zebra Finch males, and to observe the effect this has on carotenoid production. If there is a decrease in production, this will be evidence that carotenoid-based displays could be honest signals to females of mitochondrial fitness.

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What is the context of this research?

The foundation of this project is built on a simple idea in wildlife biology: females of many species often use colorful displays to choose an individual with which to mate. Many types of finches, including the zebra finch, use red carotenoid pigments in their mating ornamentations. While it is known that females use these displays to choose the "most fit" mates, it is not well defined what type of "fitness" is being signaled to the female. Researchers now suggest that carotenoid production may be tied to the function of energy producing mitochondria in eukaryotic cells. We can then hypothesize that only individuals with healthy mitochondria will be able to devote energy to developing carotenoid displays making the ornamentations an honest signal to females of male respiratory health.

What is the significance of this project?

The recognition of the importance of the mitochondria in uncovering the secrets of the evolutionary history of eukaryotic organisms is spreading rapidly. If a causal link between mitochondrial function and carotenoid production can be found, more evidence is added to the growing hypothesis that mate choice using ornamentation is a deeper process than we previously thought possible. If carotenoid based ornamentation is in fact an honest signal for the healthy function of mitochondria, females could essentially be assessing males for respiratory fitness. This could shed light on the evolution of mate choice in eukaryotic organisms. Mate selection could have evolved with mitochondria as a driving force behind it.

What are the goals of the project?

All funds will be devoted to paying for supplies and analyses necessary for project completion. Once IACUC forms are submitted to our institution at Auburn University we plan to begin research early 2017, preferably in January. We plan to publish our results upon project completion.

Our experimental design will consist of two groups of 18-20 male zebra finches housed in pairs in 1 square meter approved enclosures. The birds will separated in two groups, one fed Mazuri food pellets with supplement to induce mitochondria membrane dysfunction and a control group fed food without the supplement. At the end of three weeks, carotenoid coloration and concentration of the birds will be determined using photography, portable spectrometry, and HPLC.


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The cost to purchase the zebra finches is included based on the assumption that the birds will need to be ordered from a breeder or aviary. Our finches will be fed custom food pellets from Mazuri costing around $30/25lb. 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP) stock, used to induce mitochondria dysfunction, should cost around $40 after shipping. Propylene glycol is necessary to dissolve the DNP and will cost about $75 to obtain. Included is an estimate for materials needed to clean and maintain enclosures such as disinfectants, perches and bedding for the enclosure floors. Assorted chemicals and solvents necessary for carotenoid extraction and HPLC analysis make up a large bulk of our costs but are completely critical to performing top quality identification of carotenoid pigment concentration.

Endorsed by

Matt has designed an important experimental test of the hypothesis that red carotenoid coloration is a signal of mitochondrial function. This is a study that will have a significant impact on the field of study.

Meet the Team

Matthew Powers
Matthew Powers
Doctoral Student


Hill Lab, Auburn University
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Team Bio

Our group consists of Dr. Geoff Hill, Rebecca Koch, Ryan Weaver, Anna Tucker and Roy Ge. All members of our team perform leading research on mitonuclear interactions and the role of carotenoid coloration in signalling behaviors. The primary investigators of this project are myself and Dr. Hill.

Matthew Powers

Lover of all things science and teaching.

After graduating in 2014 from Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida I taught in the public school system in Bay County, FL for 2 years at Northside Elementary, a Title I school in Panama City. I returned to graduate school to pursue my doctoral degree in biology at Auburn University in Alabama. Most of my work has involved carotenoid coloration in various species including brown and green Anole lizards and now in house finches and zebra finches.

I have recently been converted into a firm believer in the importance of mitochondrial and nuclear genome interactions thanks to the groundbreaking research and inspired guidance of Dr. Geoff Hill and his lab group at Auburn University. I am of the mindset that mitonuclear studies involving speciation and evolutionary history is paving a better understanding of how the world of eukaryotic organisms developed. Carotenoid studies may be my key to unlocking some of the mysteries surrounding that development.

Additional Information

Photos and videos of facilities, birds and equipment will be added as the project moves forward.

Project Backers

  • 5Backers
  • 21%Funded
  • $329Total Donations
  • $65.80Average Donation
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