Evolutionary transitions and mechanisms of matte and iridescent plumage coloration in grackles and allies (Icteridae)

Matthew D. Shawkey, Mark E. Hauber, Laura K. Estep, Geoffrey E. Hill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Iridescent structural colour is found in a wide variety of organisms. In birds, the mechanisms that create these colours are diverse, but all are based on ordered arrays of melanin granules within a keratin substrate in barbules. The feathers of the grackles and allies in the family Icteridae range in appearance from matte black to iridescent. In a phylogenetic analysis of this clade, we identified several evolutionary transitions between these colour states. To describe a possible mechanistic explanation for the lability of plumage coloration, we used spectrometry, transmission electron microscopy and thin-film optical modelling of the feathers of 10 icterid species from five genera, including taxa with matte black or iridescent feathers. In matte black species, melanin was densely packed in barbules, while in iridescent species, melanin granules were arranged in ordered layers around the edges of barbules. The structured arrangement of melanin granules in iridescent species created optical interfaces, which are shown by our optical models to be critical for iridescent colour production by coherent scattering. These data imply that rearrangement of melanin granules in barbules is a mechanism for shifts between black and iridescent colours, and that the relative simplicity of this mechanism may explain the lability of plumage colour state within this group.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)777-786
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the Royal Society Interface
Issue number11
StatePublished - Dec 22 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Cowbirds
  • Plumage colour
  • Sexual selection
  • Structural colour
  • Thin-film

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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