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The anatomical basis of sexual dichromatism in non-iridescent ultraviolet-blue structural coloration of feathers

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Despite extensive research on the evolution of avian dichromatism, the anatomical bases for differences between the sexes in species with structurally coloured plumage remain largely unknown. Using full-spectrum spectrometry and transmission electron microscopy, we compared the colour and morphology of rump feathers of male and female eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis). The ultraviolet (UV)-blue feather colour in this species is caused by coherent scattering of light within the medullary ‘spongy layer’ of feather barbs. This spongy layer lies beneath a keratin cortex and on top of a layer of melanin granules that surround a hollow central vacuole. Irregularly shaped electron-dense regions are present within the cortex. Male and female S. sialis differed substantially in their plumage colour and feather structure. A backwards logistic regression predicted sex with 100% accuracy using the colour variables brightness, UV-violet (UV-V) chroma and spectral saturation. A second backwards logistical regression predicted sex with 100% accuracy using relative cortex area and size of air spaces. Thus, S. sialis are dimorphic both in colour and in the structures causing this colour. Multiple regression analyses using data pooled from both sexes indicated that multiple features of feather barb structure contributed to colour variation in complex ways. Brightness was negatively related to the relative surface area of cortex in barb cross-sections. Hue was positively related and UV-V chroma was negatively related to the distance between scattering elements (i.e. keratin rods and air spaces) in the spongy layer. In contrast, hue was negatively related and UV-V chroma was positively related to the thickness of the spongy layer. UV-V chroma was also negatively related to the relative area of electron-dense regions in the cortex. Spectral saturation was negatively related to the distance between scatterers and the standard error of the size of air spaces. These results suggest that the dimensions of spongy-layer elements are critical to colour production, but that UV-blue coloration can also be modified by the cortex and the thickness of the spongy layer. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 84, 259–271.
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Keywords: Sialia sialis; light scattering; melanin; sexual selection; structural colour

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, 310 BioScience West, Tuscon, AZ 85721, USA 2: Department of Biological Sciences, Auburn University, 331 Funchess Hall, Auburn, AL 36849, USA

Publication date: 2004-01-01

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