Morphological basis of glossy red plumage colours

Jean Pierre Iskandar, Chad M. Eliason, Timothy Astrop, Branislav Igic, Rafael Maia, Matthew D. Shawkey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (SciVal)


Brightly coloured feathers, including the brilliant reds produced by carotenoids, are sometimes shiny in appearance. Gloss is a common property of materials and usually arises through specular reflection from smooth, flat surfaces. However, the production of gloss on red feathers has never been examined. In the present study, we compared the optical and structural properties of glossy and matte carotenoid-based red feathers of multiple species to identify the proximate basis for their glossiness. Although specular reflectance did not differ between glossy and matte feathers, diffuse reflectance was lower in glossy than in matte feathers, leading to a higher contrast gloss. Compared to matte feathers, glossy red feathers had thicker barbs with a flatter and more homogeneous morphology, consistent with expectations, as well as thicker outer keratin cortices. Moreover, glossiness was predicted by a principal component regression using these same morphological traits. We demonstrate that the gloss of carotenoid-based red feathers is produced at least in part by a smooth, flattened barb microstructure and an enhanced nanostructure, illustrating a novel colour-producing interaction that neither pigment, nor microstructure could alone attain. How the ecology and evolution of species with glossy red feather differ from those with typical matte red feathers represent rich areas for future study.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)477-487
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number2
Early online date14 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016


  • Feathers
  • Iridescence
  • Pigments
  • Sexual selection
  • Structural colour

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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