Lutein-based plumage coloration in songbirds is a consequence of selective pigment incorporation into feathers

K. J. McGraw, M. D. Beebee, G. E. Hill, R. S. Parker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Many birds obtain colorful carotenoid pigments from the diet and deposit them into growing tissues to develop extravagant red, orange or yellow sexual ornaments. In these instances, it is often unclear whether all dietary pigments are used as integumentary colorants or whether certain carotenoids are preferentially excluded or incorporated into tissues. We examined the carotenoid profiles of three New World passerines that display yellow plumage coloration - the yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia), common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) and evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus). Using high-performance liquid chromatography, we found that all species used only one carotenoid - lutein - to color their plumage yellow. Analyses of blood carotenoids (which document those pigments taken up from the diet) in two of the species, however, revealed the presence of two dietary xanthophylls - lutein and zeaxanthin - that commonly co-occur in plants and animals. These findings demonstrate post-absorptive selectivity of carotenoid deposition in bird feathers. To learn more about the site of pigment discrimination, we also analyzed the carotenoid composition of lipid fractions from the follicles of immature yellow-pigmented feathers in G. trichas and D. petechia and again detected both lutein and zeaxanthin. This suggests that selective lutein incorporation in feathers is under local control at the maturing feather follicle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)689-696
Number of pages8
JournalComparative Biochemistry and Physiology - B Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Carotenoids
  • Coccothraustes vespertinus
  • Common yellowthroat
  • Dendroica petechia
  • Evening grosbeak
  • Geothlypis trichas
  • HPLC
  • Physiological discrimination
  • Yellow warbler
  • Zeaxanthin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Molecular Biology


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