Evolution of avian plumage color in a tetrahedral color space: A phylogenetic analysis of new world buntings

Mary Caswell Stoddard, Richard O. Prum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

339 Scopus citations


We use a tetrahedral color space to describe and analyze male plumage color variation and evolution in a clade of New World buntings - Cyanocompsa and Passerina (Aves: Cardinalidae). The Goldsmith color space models the relative stimulation of the four retinal cones, using the integrals of the product of plumage reflectance spectra and cone sensitivity functions. A color is represented as a vector defined by the relative stimulation of the four cone types - ultraviolet, blue, green, and red. Color vectors are plotted in a tetrahedral, or quaternary, plot with the achromatic point at the origin and the ultraviolet/violet channel along the Z-axis. Each color vector is specified by the spherical coordinates θ, φ, and r. Hue is given by the angles θ and φ. Chroma is given by the magnitude of r, the distance from the achromatic origin. Color vectors of all distinct patches in a plumage characterize the plumage color phenotype. We describe the variation in color space occupancy of male bunting plumages, using various measures of color contrast, hue contrast and diversity, and chroma. Comparative phylogenetic analyses using linear parsimony (in MacClade) and generalized least squares (GLS) models (in CONTINUOUS) with a molecular phylogeny of the group document that plumage color evolution in the clade has been very dynamic. The single best-fit GLS evolutionary model of plumage color variation over the entire clade is a directional change model with no phylogenetic correlation among species. However, phylogenetic innovations in feather color production mechanisms - derived pheomelanin and carotenoid expression in two lineages - created new opportunities to colonize novel areas of color space and fostered the explosive differentiation in plumage color. Comparison of the tetrahedral color space of Goldsmith with that of Endler and Mielke demonstrates that both provide essentially identical results. Evolution of avian ultraviolet/violet opsin sensitivity in relation to chromatic experience is discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)755-776
Number of pages22
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2008
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Chroma
  • Color vision
  • Cyanocompsa
  • Hue
  • Passerina
  • Ultraviolet


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