The Plumage Rainbow

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Science  01 Jul 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6038, pp. 14
DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6038.14-a

The plumage of birds ranges from the sublime to the (what some might consider) gaudy. Certainly, birds seem to possess a stunning range of colors in their plumage, with the most striking ones often relating to mate choice and social signaling. These colors probably evolved in response to the capabilities of the avian visual system (avian “color space”).

Stoddard and Prum determined the range of colors (the color gamut) of 965 plumage samples from a wide range of bird species and showed that they occupied a mere 26 to 30% of the available avian color space. Pigment-based colors (often diet-derived) occupied 6.9% of color space (26.7% of the color gamut), whereas structure-based colors (for example, iridescent barbules) occupied 17.9% of color space (and almost 70% of the color gamut): It is in these latter colors that bird plumage diverges most from plant colors. Over evolutionary time, structural colors have dramatically extended the range of plumage coloration mechanisms available to birds. Still, plumage colors only occupy hue “continents” and “archipelagos” in color space between unoccupied regions, with, for example, few purple and fully saturated green colors. Indeed, bird plumages do not include many of the hues available to flowers, likely because certain colors may be either difficult to create or selectively undesirable.

Behav. Ecol. 22, 10.1093/beheco/arr088 (2011).

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