Carotenoid pigments and the selectivity of psittacofulvin-based coloration systems in parrots

Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol. 2004 Jul;138(3):229-33. doi: 10.1016/j.cbpc.2004.03.011.


Carotenoid pigments are commonly used as colorants of feathers and bare parts by birds. However, parrots (Aves: Psittaciformes) use a novel class of plumage pigments (called psittacofulvins) that, like carotenoids, are lipid-soluble and red, orange, or yellow in color. To begin to understand how and why parrots use these pigments and not carotenoids in their feathers, we must first describe the distribution of these two types of pigments in the diet, tissues, and fluids of these birds. Here, we studied the carotenoid content of blood in five species of parrots with red in their plumage to see if they show the physiological ability to accumulate carotenoids in the body. Although Scarlet (Ara macao) and Greenwing Macaws (Ara chloroptera) and Eclectus (Eclectus roratus), African Gray (Psittacus erithacus) and Blue-fronted Amazon (Amazona aestiva) Parrots all use psittacofulvins to color their feathers red, we found that they also circulated high concentrations of both dietary (lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin) and metabolically derived (anhydrolutein, dehydrolutein) carotenoids through blood at the time of feather growth, at levels comparable to those found in many other carotenoid-colored birds. These results suggest that parrots have the potential to use carotenoids for plumage pigmentation, but preferentially avoid depositing them in feathers, which is likely under the control of the maturing feather follicle. As there is no evidence of psittacofulvins in parrot blood at the tune of feather growth, we presume that these pigments are locally synthesized by growing feathers within the follicular tissue.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carotenoids / blood*
  • Feathers / anatomy & histology
  • Feathers / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Parrots / anatomy & histology
  • Parrots / classification
  • Parrots / physiology*
  • Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Pigments, Biological / blood*
  • Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids / chemistry
  • Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids / metabolism


  • Pigments, Biological
  • Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids
  • Carotenoids
  • fulvine