We often look in fascinated glee at various male specimens of the animal kingdom who strut and preen and show off their exotic colors in order to score a mate. It’s entertaining to us, and often quaint, since, as human beings, we are way beyond all that — or are we? Scientists in animal biology recently conducted a study that may prove that some of we humans may not be so far away from the beasts as we’d like to think.
The goal of the study: to show how pigment in skin color can influence attractiveness. The scientists honed in on a specific element: carotenoid-based color. You’re likely most familiar with carotenoids as the basis for red and yellow pigment in food — it’s what makes tomatoes red, carrots orange, and influences things like the coloration of beaks and plumage in animals. Beginning with the premise that those red, yellows, and oranges are seen as signs of health in a potential mate among animals, researchers led by Young Zhi Foo at the Animal Biology department at the University of Western Australia set out to discover whether that same rule may apply to humans.
According to the study’s release, “previous research has found that in various species — of birds, fish, and reptiles — females are more attracted to their colorful male counterpart. Researchers have argued that carotenoid-based coloration is an honest signal of health, and is associated with acting as an antioxidant.” It is these signs of healthiness via color that can trigger a mating response from a female to a male. The study found that the Caucasian male subjects who underwent a treatment of beta carotene — a pigment belonging to the carotenoid family — that affected their skin color over a period of 12 weeks, were determined in fact to be more attractive by a panel of women test subjects. At the end of the study, women picked the beta-carotene subjects 50% more often than men who had taken a placebo, and thus did not display the coloration from carotenoids.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the study isn’t necessarily that the carotenoid-based skin pigmentation is believed to trigger something within women to sexually select a mate due to their perceived healthiness. Instead, what they discovered is that the beta carotene in fact had little to do with the health of the men in the study. “Beta-carotene supplement significantly enhanced participants’ attractiveness and appearance of health,” the study explains. “Beta-carotene treatment did not, however, significantly affect any health functions.”
Red, yellow, or orange skin may lead some people to perceive the tinted-skinned among us as healthier, robust, and more eligible mates. But merely because their skin may glow with those bright pigments of tomatoes, mangoes or bright yellow peppers doesn’t mean that their potential as mates will actually bear it out. On the brighter side, the study does seem to confirm that you are, more or less, what you eat, at least on the outside.