Carotenoid pigments in male American goldfinches: What is the optimal biochemical strategy for becoming colourful?

Kevin McGraw, Alexander J. Gregory

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Studies of brilliant carotenoid-based coloration in birds have traditionally centred on the role that these colours play in attracting mates. More recently, biologists have begun to take a biochemical approach to understanding the types of pigments found in feathers and how these relate to the expression of ornamental coloration. Nevertheless, surprisingly few studies have assessed the types and amounts of carotenoids present in the diet or blood of animals in relation to season, sex, condition or sexually attractive colour traits, particularly for wild birds. It is conceivable not only that the total concentration of pigments available is an important predictor of sexual attractiveness and mate quality, but also that specific pigments vary among individuals and play more important physiological and pigmenting roles than others. We investigated the carotenoid content of blood and feathers in wild-caught, yellow-pigmented male American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) throughout the year to determine the optimal biochemical strategy for becoming colourful. We found that birds acquired two main yellow hydroxycarotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin) from the diet during both moulting and non-moulting periods. Blood concentrations of both pigments changed significantly over time, with moulting birds accumulating higher levels of both lutein and zeaxanthin, but proportionally more zeaxanthin, than non-moulting birds. Moulting birds that acquired more lutein and more zeaxanthin in blood deposited a higher concentration of carotenoid pigments (canary xanthophylls A and B) into plumage and acquired more colourful feathers. In sum, these results indicate that (a) the types of dietary carotenoids available across seasons do not change in American goldfinches, (b) seasonal fluctuations in plasma-carotenoid signatures may result from differences in dietary access or pigment processing, and (c) the best biochemical strategy for becoming a colourful, wild male goldfinch is to accumulate as many dietary/blood pigments as possible during moult.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)273-280
Number of pages8
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 2004


  • High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC)
  • Lutein plumage coloration
  • Sexual selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Carotenoid pigments in male American goldfinches: What is the optimal biochemical strategy for becoming colourful?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this