Hidden carotenoids in the powder down of herons

Daniel B. Thomas, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Vivid plumage colors are some of the best examples of elaborate trait evolution resulting from sexual selection. Bird feathers often contain high concentrations of pigment or intricate microstructures for reflecting light at distal feather tips, in order to maximize color presentation to intended viewers (e.g., prospective mates, rivals). However, here we describe a rare form of “hidden” plumage coloration, whereby several species of heron (Pelecaniformes: Ardeidae) have powder down tracts liberally coated in yellow pigments that are hidden from view underneath contour feathers. We show using Raman spectroscopy and high-performance liquid chromatography that the yellow coloration is due to carotenoid pigmentation. We also show that fatty acids and carotenoids co-occur in samples and discuss the possible evidence and implications for the presence of esterified carotenoids in powder down. Our study of hidden feather coloration is in apparent contrast with the traditional view of carotenoid pigmentation in plumage, which holds that carotenoids are costly pigments that are displayed to advertise individual quality. We hypothesize that carotenoid pigments are transferred onto powder down as a consequence of the chemical affinity that these pigments have to lipoid secretions associated with subcutaneous fat. Further investigation may identify functions for carotenoid pigmentation in powder down (e.g., signaling, microbiological protection), but we cannot rule out the possibility that the powder down of herons may provide the first evidence for carotenoid coloration in feathers being a non-adaptive by-product of other processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)785-792
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Ornithology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018


  • Ardeidae
  • Carotenoid pigments
  • Green Heron
  • High-performance liquid chromatography
  • Plumage
  • Raman spectroscopy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology


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