The brilliant iridescent plumage of birds creates some of the most stunning color displays known in the natural world. Iridescent plumage colors are produced by nanostructures in feathers and have evolved in diverse birds. The building blocks of these structures—melanosomes (melanin-filled organelles)—come in a variety of forms, yet how these different forms contribute to color production across birds remains unclear. Here, we leverage evolutionary analyses, optical simu-lations, and reflectance spectrophotometry to uncover general principles that govern the production of brilliant iridescence. We find that a key feature that unites all melanosome forms in brilliant iridescent structures is thin melanin layers. Birds have achieved this in multiple ways: by decreasing the size of the melanosome directly, by hollowing out the interior, or by flattening the melanosome into a platelet. The evolution of thin melanin layers unlocks color-producing possibilities, more than doubling the range of colors that can be produced with a thick melanin layer and simultaneously increasing brightness. We discuss the implications of these findings for the evolution of iridescent structures in birds and propose two evolutionary paths to brilliant iridescence.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Immunology and Microbiology(all)