Background: Color traits in animals play crucial roles in thermoregulation, photoprotection, camouflage, and visual communication, and are amenable to objective quantification and modeling. However, the extensive variation in non-melanic pigments and structural colors in squamate reptiles has been largely disregarded. Here, we used an integrated approach to investigate the morphological basis and physical mechanisms generating variation in color traits in tropical day geckos of the genus Phelsuma.
Results: Combining histology, optics, mass spectrometry, and UV and Raman spectroscopy, we found that the extensive variation in color patterns within and among Phelsuma species is generated by complex interactions between, on the one hand, chromatophores containing yellow/red pteridine pigments and, on the other hand, iridophores producing structural color by constructive interference of light with guanine nanocrystals. More specifically, we show that 1) the hue of the vivid dorsolateral skin is modulated both by variation in geometry of structural, highly ordered narrowband reflectors, and by the presence of yellow pigments, and 2) that the reflectivity of the white belly and of dorsolateral pigmentary red marks, is increased by underlying structural disorganized broadband reflectors. Most importantly, these interactions require precise colocalization of yellow and red chromatophores with different types of iridophores, characterized by ordered and disordered nanocrystals, respectively. We validated these results through numerical simulations combining pigmentary components with a multilayer interferential optical model. Finally, we show that melanophores form dark lateral patterns but do not significantly contribute to variation in blue/green or red coloration, and that changes in the pH or redox state of pigments provide yet another source of color variation in squamates.
Conclusions: Precisely colocalized interacting pigmentary and structural elements generate extensive variation in lizard color patterns. Our results indicate the need to identify the developmental mechanisms responsible for the control of the size, shape, and orientation of nanocrystals, and the superposition of specific chromatophore types. This study opens up new perspectives on Phelsuma lizards as models in evolutionary developmental biology.