Academic journal article Science and Children

How Do Birds Get Their Colors?

Academic journal article Science and Children

How Do Birds Get Their Colors?

Article excerpt

The patterns that we see in birds' feathers are made up of intricate combinations of mottles, scales, bars, and spots. But how are these colors and patterns made?

To find out, researchers studied plumage coloration to see what types of pigments were present in birds' complex feather patterns. Plumage coloration mainly occurs courtesy of two types of pigments: melanins (which produce a range of black, grey, brown, and orange colors) and carotenoids (which are used by specialized feather structures to generate brighter color hues).

Birds cannot produce carotenoids on their own. They must consume food items that contain these pigments, and the carotenoids circulate through the bloodstream and to the feather follicles. Birds' bodies neither have direct cellular control of synthesizing and depositing carotenoids, nor do they have control of the specialized feather structures, which react to the consumed carotenoids with a mechanism unregulated by specialized cells.

Melanins, on the other hand, are synthesized by special cells in the birds' bodies called "melanocytes," which work together with feather follicles to achieve a fine control of pigmentation. Although studies frequently focus on carotenoids in bird coloration, this study is the first to test whether melanins are indeed the only pigmentary element that birds' bodies directly control on a cellular level. …

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