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Variation in ultraviolet reflectance by carotenoid-bearing feathers of tanagers (Thraupini: Emberizinae: Passeriformes)

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Avian visual sensitivity encompasses both the human visible range (400–700 nm) and also near-ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths (320–400 nm) invisible to normal humans. I used reflectance spectrophotometry to assess variation in UV reflectance for yellow, orange and red plumage in 67 species of tanager (Passeriformes). Previous chemical studies, and my analysis of reflectance minima, suggest that carotenoids are the dominant pigments in yellow, orange and red tanager plumage. Spectra recorded over the range of wavelengths to which birds are sensitive (320–700 nm) were invariably bimodal, with both a plateau of high reflectance at longer (> 500 nm) wavelengths and a distinct secondary peak at UV (< 400 nm) wavelengths. Within this overall framework, variation in UV reflectance was expressed within well-defined quantitative limits: (1) peak reflectance was always lower than the corresponding plateau of reflectance at longer visible wavelengths; (2) the intensity of peak reflectance declined steadily below 350 nm; (3) wavelengths of peak reflectance clustered between 350 and 370 nm. Significant correlations were detected between various measures of total reflectance in the UV and visible wavebands, but not between various measures of spectral location of UV and visible reflectance. I propose that the strong absorption band at short visible wavelengths (∼ 380–550 nm) responsible for bimodal spectra of carotenoids in vitro is also responsible for bimodal reflectance by carotenoid-based plumage colours. The construction of the UV and visible reflectance bands from different sides of this same absorbance band provides a mechanism for the observed covariation between UV and visible wavelengths. Lack of an association between the spectral locations of the UV and visible reflectance bands may result from the limited variation in spectral location of the UV band. These patterns suggest that plumage colours are subject to constraints, just as are more traditional morphological characters. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 84, 243–257.
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Keywords: bird; colour; constraint; independent contrasts; pigment; plumage; red; reflectance spectra

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2004-01-01

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