Pigment cell refugia in homeotherms--the unique evolutionary position of the iris

Pigment Cell Res. 1992 Dec;5(6):367-71. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0749.1992.tb00564.x.


Homeotherms are generally considered to lack classical active dermal pigment cells (chromatophores) in their integument, attributable to the development of an outer covering coat of hair or feathers. However, bright colored dermal pigment cells, comparable to chromatophores of lower vertebrates, are found in the irides of many birds. We propose that, because of its exposed location, the iris is an area in which color from pigment cells has sustained a selective advantage and appears to have evolved independently of the general integument. In birds, the iris appears to have retained the potential for the complete expression of all dermal chromatophore types. Differences in cell morphology and the presence of unusual pigments in birds are suggested to be the result of evolutionary changes that followed the divergence of birds from reptiles. By comparison, mammals appear to have lost the potential for producing iridophores, xanthophores, or erythrophores comparable to those of lower vertebrates, even though some species possess brightly colored irides. It is proposed that at least one species of mammal (the domestic cat) has recruited a novel iridial reflecting pigment organelle originally developed in the choroidal tapetum lucidum. The potential presence of classical chromatophores in mammals remains open, as few species with bright irides have been examined.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Birds*
  • Chromatophores / cytology*
  • Iris / cytology*
  • Mammals*
  • Pigments, Biological


  • Pigments, Biological