Dramatic colour changes in a bird of paradise caused by uniquely structured breast feather barbules

Proc Biol Sci. 2011 Jul 22;278(1715):2098-104. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2293. Epub 2010 Dec 15.


The breast-plate plumage of male Lawes' parotia (Parotia lawesii) produces dramatic colour changes when this bird of paradise displays on its forest-floor lek. We show that this effect is achieved not solely by the iridescence--that is an angular-dependent spectral shift of the reflected light--which is inherent in structural coloration, but is based on a unique anatomical modification of the breast-feather barbule. The barbules have a segmental structure, and in common with many other iridescent feathers, they contain stacked melanin rodlets surrounded by a keratin film. The unique property of the parotia barbules is their boomerang-like cross section. This allows each barbule to work as three coloured mirrors: a yellow-orange reflector in the plane of the feather, and two symmetrically positioned bluish reflectors at respective angles of about 30°. Movement during the parotia's courtship displays thereby achieves much larger and more abrupt colour changes than is possible with ordinary iridescent plumage. To our knowledge, this is the first example of multiple thin film or multi-layer reflectors incorporated in a single structure (engineered or biological). It nicely illustrates how subtle modification of the basic feather structure can achieve novel visual effects. The fact that the parotia's breast feathers seem to be specifically adapted to give much stronger colour changes than normal structural coloration implies that colour change is important in their courtship display.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Color*
  • Feathers / anatomy & histology*
  • Feathers / ultrastructure
  • Male
  • Passeriformes / anatomy & histology*
  • Passeriformes / physiology
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal
  • Spectrum Analysis