Royal Society Publishing

Carotenoids need structural colours to shine

Matthew D Shawkey, Geoffrey E Hill


The bright colours of feathers are among the most striking displays in nature and are frequently used as sexual signals. Feathers can be coloured by pigments or by ordered tissue, and these mechanisms have traditionally been treated as distinct modes of display. Here we show that some yellow plumage colour is created both by reflection of light from white structural tissue and absorption of light by carotenoids. Thus, structural components of feathers contribute substantially to yellow ‘carotenoid’ displays, but the effect of variation in structural components on variation in colour displays is, to our knowledge, unstudied. The presence of structural colour in some carotenoid-based colour displays will have to be considered in studies of colour signalling.

  • Received October 27, 2004.
  • Accepted December 13, 2004.
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