Interspecific variation in dietary carotenoid assimilation in birds: Links to phylogeny and color ornamentation

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45 Scopus citations


Many birds use carotenoid pigments to acquire rich red, orange, and yellow coloration in feathers and bare parts that is used as a signal of mate quality. Because carotenoids are derived from foods, much attention has been paid to the role of diet in generating color variation both within and among avian species. Less consideration has been given to physiological underpinnings of color variability, especially among species. Here, I surveyed published literature (e.g. captive feeding studies) on carotenoid assimilation in six bird species and completed additional controlled carotenoid-supplementation experiments in two others to consider the ability of different taxa to extract carotenoids from the diet in relation to phylogeny and coloration. I found that, for a given level of carotenoids in the diet, passerine birds (zebra finch, Taeniopygia guttata; house finch, Carpodacus mexicanus; American goldfinch, Carduelis tristis; society finch, Lonchura domestica) exhibit higher levels of carotenoids in circulation than non-passerines like gamebirds (domestic chicken, Gallus domesticus; red junglefowl, Gallus gallus; Japanese quail, Coturnix coturnix; red-legged partridge, Alectoris rufa). This difference in carotenoid accumulation is likely due to interspecific variation in micelle, chylomicron, or lipoprotein concentrations or affinities for xanthophyll carotenoids. Passerine birds more commonly develop carotenoid-based colors than do birds from ancient avian lineages such as Galliformes, and the physiological differences I uncover may explain why songbirds especially capitalize on carotenoid pigments for color production. Ultimately, because we can deconstruct color traits into component biochemical, physical, and physiological parts, avian color signals may serve as a valuable model for illuminating the proximate mechanisms behind interspecific variation in signal use in animals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)245-250
Number of pages6
JournalComparative Biochemistry and Physiology - B Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 2005


  • Carotenoids
  • Galliformes
  • House finch
  • Passeriformes
  • Plasma carotenoids
  • Plumage coloration
  • Sexual selection
  • Society finch

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology


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