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Sublethal effects of oil spills may dampen seabird rehabilitation success due to lingering negative impacts of contamination and stress on reproduction and long-term survival. These effects can be difficult to measure while birds are in care as well as once birds are released. Expression of sexually selected traits that are sensitive to condition can provide information on physiological status of birds. We evaluated plumage molt and gular pouch skin color of California brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) following oil contamination and rehabilitation to test for differences between previously oiled and rehabilitated (post-spill) and presumably uncontaminated pelicans. Post-spill pelicans released with either color leg bands alone, or bands plus harness-mounted satellite GPS tags, were relocated and visually assessed in the field at non-breeding communal roosts and compared to surrounding unmarked pelicans in the general population. Non-oiled pelicans bearing GPS tags were also included in the study. Post-spill pelicans lagged the general population in molt of ornamental yellow crown feathers but hind neck transition into white plumage was not significantly different. Both post-spill and non-oiled pelicans wearing GPS tags had lower gular redness scores than the unmarked, non-oiled population. Pre-breeding gular pouch redness of post-spill pelicans was more strongly influenced by wearing of a GPS tag than a history of oil contamination and rehabilitation. Gular pouch redness of post-spill pelicans in the first 18 months after release was positively correlated with long term survivorship. If gular pouch color is a condition-dependent sexual signal and overall health influences plumage molt progression, our results indicate that many post-spill pelicans marked with bands alone were in relatively good condition going into the next breeding season, but those released with electronic tags experienced additional stress due to wearing the equipment, introducing a confounding variable to the post-release study.


This article was originally published in PLOS One, available at DOI: /10.1371/journal.pone.0211932.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CC BY 4.0).



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