Sexual dichromatism in the yellow-breasted chat Icteria virens: Spectrophotometric analysis and biochemical basis

Herman L. Mays, Kevin J. McGraw, Gary Ritchison, Steve Cooper, Victor Rush, Robert S. Parker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


Sexual dimorphism or dichromatism has long been considered the result of sexual selection. However, for many organisms the degree to which sexual dichromatism occurs has been determined within the confines of human perception. For birds, objective measures of plumage color have revealed previously unappreciated sexual dichromatism for several species. Here we present an unbiased assessment of plumage dichromatism in the yellow-breasted chat Icteria virens. Chats exhibit yellow to orange throat and breast plumage that to the unaided human observer differs only subtly in color. Spectrophotometric analyses revealed that chat throat and breast feathers exhibited reflective curves with two peaks, one in the ultraviolet and one in the yellow end of the spectrum. We found differences in both the shape and magnitude of reflectance curves between males and females. Moreover, for feathers collected from the lower edge and middle of the breast patch, male plumage reflected more light in the ultraviolet and yellow wavelengths compared to females, whereas male throat feathers appeared brighter than those of females only in the ultraviolet. Biochemical analyses indicated that the plumage pigmentation consisted solely of the carotenoid all-trans lutein and we found that males have higher concentrations of plumage carotenoids than females. Feathers that were naturally unpigmented reflected more UV light than yellow feathers, suggesting a potential role of feather microstructure in UV reflectance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-134
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2004
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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