The influence of carotenoid acquisition and utilization on the maintenance of species-typical plumage pigmentation in male American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) and northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Physiol Biochem Zool. Nov-Dec 2001;74(6):843-52. doi: 10.1086/323797.

Abstract

Birds display a tremendous variety of carotenoid-based colors in their plumage, but the mechanisms underlying interspecific variability in carotenoid pigmentation remain poorly understood. Because vertebrates cannot synthesize carotenoids de novo, access to pigments in the diet is one proximate factor that may shape species differences in carotenoid-based plumage coloration. However, some birds metabolize ingested carotenoids and deposit pigments that differ in color from their dietary precursors, indicating that metabolic capabilities may also contribute to the diversity of plumage colors we see in nature. In this study, we investigated how the acquisition and utilization of carotenoids influence the maintenance of species-typical plumage pigmentation in male American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) and northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). We supplemented the diet of captive goldfinches with red carotenoids to determine whether males, which are typically yellow in color, were capable of growing red plumage. We also deprived cardinals of red dietary pigments to determine whether they could manufacture red carotenoids from yellow precursors to grow species-typical red plumage. We found that American goldfinches were able to deposit novel pigments in their plumage and develop a striking orange appearance. Thus, dietary access to pigments plays a role in determining the degree to which goldfinches express carotenoid-based plumage coloration. We also found that northern cardinals grew pale red feathers in the absence of red dietary pigments, indicating that their ability to metabolize yellow carotenoids in the diet contributes to the bright red plumage that they display.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carotenoids / metabolism*
  • Carotenoids / pharmacology
  • Diet*
  • Feathers
  • Male
  • Pigmentation*
  • Songbirds / physiology*

Substances

  • Carotenoids