Pheomelanin is a pink to red version of melanin pigment deposited in skin and hair. Due to its bright colour, pheomelanin plays a crucial function in signalling, in particular sexual signalling. However, production of pheomelanin, as opposed to its dark alternative, eumelanin, bears costs in terms of consumption of antioxidants important for protection of DNA against naturally produced reactive oxidative species. Therefore, decreased expression of pheomelanin is expected in organisms exposed to severe oxidative stress such as that caused by exposure to chronic ionizing radiation. We tested if variable exposure to radiation among natural populations of bank voles Myodes glareolus in Chernobyl affected expression of red colouration in their dorsal fur. The relative redness of dorsal fur was positively correlated with weight, but also negatively correlated with the level of background radiation. These results suggest that the development of the natural red colouration in adult bank voles is affected by ionizing background radiation, and potentially causing elevated levels of oxidative stress. Reduced production of pheomelanin allows more antioxidants to mitigate the oxidative stress caused by radiation. However, changing natural animal colouration for physiological reasons can have ecological costs, if e.g. it causes mismatch with habitat colouration and conspicuousness for predators.
2014. Vol. 4, 7141- p.