Dietary protein level affects iridescent coloration in Anna's hummingbirds, Calypte anna

Melissa G. Meadows, Thomas E. Roudybush, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Many animal displays involve colorful ornamental traits that signal an individual's quality as a mate or rival. Brilliant iridescent ornaments are common, but little is currently known about their production cost and signaling value. One potential cost of colorful ornaments is the acquisition of limited dietary resources that may be involved, directly or indirectly, in their production. Protein, the primary component of bird feathers and of many nanostructural components of iridescent traits, is naturally restricted in hummingbird diets (comprised mostly of sugars), suggesting that iridescent coloration may be especially challenging to produce in these animals. In this study, we experimentally investigated the effect of dietary protein availability during molt on iridescent color expression in male Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna). We fed captive birds either a 6% (high) or a 3% (low) protein diet and stimulated molt by plucking half the gorget and crown ornaments on each bird as well as the non-ornamental iridescent green tail feathers. We found that birds receiving more protein grew significantly more colorful crown feathers (higher red chroma and redder hue) than those fed the low-protein diet. Diet did not affect gorget coloration, but regrowth of feathers in captivity affected both gorget and crown coloration. Additionally, birds on the high-protein diet grew yellower (higher hue) green tail feathers than birds on the low-protein diet. These results indicate that iridescent ornamental feathers are sensitive to diet quality and may serve as honest signals of nutrition to mates or rivals. Further, because both ornamental and non-ornamental iridescent coloration were affected by conditions during their growth, iridescent color in these birds appears to be generally condition dependent.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2742-2750
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 2012


  • Animal coloration
  • Bird
  • Condition dependence
  • Iridescence
  • Structural color

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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