Colourful parrot feathers resist bacterial degradation
Biology Letters. 23 April 2011 vol. 7 no. 2 214-216
Edward H. Burtt Jr, Max R. Schroeder, Lauren A. Smith, Jenna E. Sroka and Kevin J. McGraw
The brilliant red, orange and yellow colours of parrot feathers are the product of psittacofulvins, which are synthetic pigments known only from parrots. Recent evidence suggests that some pigments in bird feathers function not just as colour generators, but also preserve plumage integrity by increasing the resistance of feather keratin to bacterial degradation. We exposed a variety of colourful parrot feathers to feather-degrading Bacillus licheniformis and found that feathers with red psittacofulvins degraded at about the same rate as those with melanin and more slowly than white feathers, which lack pigments. Blue feathers, in which colour is based on the microstructural arrangement of keratin, air and melanin granules, and green feathers, which combine structural blue with yellow psittacofulvins, degraded at a rate similar to that of red and black feathers. These differences in resistance to bacterial degradation of differently coloured feathers suggest that colour patterns within the Psittaciformes may have evolved to resist bacterial degradation, in addition to their role in communication and camouflage.
Photo: Rainbow Lorikeet by Casey Tucker/Wild Auk Photography