Birds use fruit colour as honest signal of dietary antioxidant rewards

H. M. Schaefer, Kevin McGraw, C. Catoni

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

134 Scopus citations


1. Fruits are among the most antioxidant-rich foods in nature and thus can be important dietary sources for combating oxidative stress in animals and humans. 2. Because fruits are pigmented by important plant antioxidants such as anthocyanins and carotenoids, frugivores may be able to gauge the antioxidant value of a fruit by its colour. However, although the importance of dietary antioxidants and oxidative stress is increasingly being acknowledged in evolutionary ecology, it is unknown whether animals can use visual signals to detect the presence of antioxidants in their food. 3. We studied the colour and pigment content of 60 bird-dispersed fruits and used an avian eye model to assess the ability of birds to visually discriminate carotenoid and anthocyanin contents of fruits. We then tested whether the frugivorous European blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) preferentially consumes food containing anthocyanins. 4. Fruit colour variation was explained by variation in anthocyanin contents, and birds were capable of discriminating anthocyanin concentrations in fruits based on colour because fruits rich in anthocyanins are black or UV reflecting. However, we found that birds could not use colouration to determine the carotenoid contents of fruits. Ripe fruits contained more anthocyanins than unripe fruits, while there was no difference between ripe and unripe fruits in carotenoid contents. Anthocyanin contents correlated with caloric value in fruits, while there was no such correlation between carotenoids and total energy contents. 5. In food choice experiments, blackcaps selected food containing anthocyanins over food without anthocyanins. 6. In sum, our results indicate that birds actively selected for anthocyanins in their food and that they may use fruit colour as a foraging signal of anthocyanin antioxidant rewards.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)303-310
Number of pages8
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2008


  • Anthocyanins
  • Avian vision
  • Carotenoids
  • Oxidative stress
  • Plant-animal communication

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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