Astaxanthin is responsible for the pink plumage flush in Franklin's and Ring-billed gulls

Kevin McGraw, Lisa S. Hardy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Carotenoid pigments produce the red, orange, and yellow plumage of many birds. Carotenoid-containing feathers are typically rich in color and displayed by all adult members of the species. In many gulls and terns, however, an unusual light pink coloring (or flush) to the normally white plumage can be found in highly variable proportions within and across populations. The carotenoid basis of plumage flush was determined in an Elegant Tern (Sterna elegans; Hudon and Brush 1990), but it is not clear if all larids use this same mechanism for pink plumage coloration. We examined the carotenoid content of pink feathers in Franklin's (Larus pipixcan) and Ring-billed (Larus delawarensis) gulls and found that a single carotenoid - astaxanthin - was present. Astaxanthin was primarily responsible for the flush in Elegant Terns as well, but was accompanied by other carotenoids (e.g., canthaxanthin and zeaxanthin), as is typical of most astaxanthin-containing bird feathers. In both gull and tern species, carotenoids were contained within feathers and did not occur on the plumage surface in preen oil, as some have previously speculated. We hypothesize that some gulls turn pink because they acquire unusually high amounts of astaxanthin in their diets at the time of feather growth. It is tempting to link the increase in sightings of pink Ring-billed Gulls since the late 1990s with the introduction of pure, synthetic astaxanthin to the diets of hatchery-raised salmon.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-33
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Field Ornithology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2006


  • Carotenoid pigmentation
  • Laridae
  • Larus delawarensis
  • Larus pipixcan
  • Plumage coloration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology


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