Vibrational spectroscopic analyses of unique yellow feather pigments (spheniscins) in penguins

Daniel B. Thomas, Cushla M. McGoverin, Kevin McGraw, Helen F. James, Odile Madden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Many animals extract, synthesize and refine chemicals for colour display, where a range of compounds and structures can produce a diverse colour palette. Feather colours, for example, span the visible spectrum and mostly result from pigments in five chemical classes (carotenoids, melanins, porphyrins, psittacofulvins and metal oxides). However, the pigment that generates the yellow colour of penguin feathers appears to represent a sixth, poorly characterized class of feather pigments. This pigment class, here termed 'spheniscin', is displayed by half of the living penguin genera; the larger and richer colour displays of the pigment are highly attractive. Using Raman and mid-infrared spectroscopies, we analysed yellow feathers from two penguin species (king penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus; macaroni penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus) to further characterize spheniscin pigments. The Raman spectrum of spheniscin is distinct from spectra of other feather pigments and exhibits 17 distinctive spectral bands between 300 and 1700 cm21. Spectral bands from the yellow pigment are assigned to aromatically bound carbon atoms, and to skeletal modes in an aromatic, heterocyclic ring. It has been suggested that the penguin pigment is a pterin compound; Raman spectra from yellow penguin feathers are broadly consistent with previously reported pterin spectra, although we have not matched it to any known compound. Raman spectroscopy can provide a rapid and non-destructive method for surveying the distribution of different classes of feather pigments in the avian family tree, and for correlating the chemistry of spheniscin with compounds analysed elsewhere. We suggest that the sixth class of feather pigments may have evolved in a stem-lineage penguin and endowed modern penguins with a costly plumage trait that appears to be chemically unique among birds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20121065
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number83
StatePublished - Jun 6 2013


  • Plumage
  • Raman
  • Spectroscopy
  • Sphenisciformes
  • Spheniscin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biophysics
  • Bioengineering
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering


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