In many birds, red, orange and yellow feathers are coloured by carotenoid pigments, but parrots are an exception. For over a century, biochemists have known that parrots use an unusual set of pigments to produce their rainbow of plumage colours, but their biochemical identity has remained elusive until recently. Here, we use high-performance liquid chromatography to survey the pigments present in the red feathers of 44 species of parrots representing each of the three psittaciform families. We found that all species used the same suite of five polyenal lipochromes (or psittacofulvins) to colour their plumage red, indicating that this unique system of pigmentation is remarkably conserved evolutionarily in parrots. Species with redder feathers had higher concentrations of psittacofulvins in their plumage, but neither feather colouration nor historical relatedness predicted the ratios in which the different pigments appeared. These polyenes were absent from blood at the time when birds were replacing their colourful feathers, suggesting that parrots do not acquire red plumage pigments from the diet, but instead manufacture them endogenously at growing feathers.
- Plumage colouration
- Sexual selection
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)