Molecular diversity, metabolic transformation, and evolution of carotenoid feather pigments in cotingas (Aves: Cotingidae)

Richard O. Prum, Amy M. LaFountain, Julien Berro, Mary Caswell Stoddard, Harry A. Frank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Carotenoid pigments were extracted from 29 feather patches from 25 species of cotingas (Cotingidae) representing all lineages of the family with carotenoid plumage coloration. Using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), mass spectrometry, chemical analysis, and 1H-NMR, 16 different carotenoid molecules were documented in the plumages of the cotinga family. These included common dietary xanthophylls (lutein and zeaxanthin), canary xanthophylls A and B, four well known and broadly distributed avian ketocarotenoids (canthaxanthin, astaxanthin, α-doradexanthin, and adonixanthin), rhodoxanthin, and seven 4-methoxy-ketocarotenoids. Methoxy-ketocarotenoids were found in 12 species within seven cotinga genera, including a new, previously undescribed molecule isolated from the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock Rupicola peruviana, 3′-hydroxy-3-methoxy-β,β-carotene-4-one, which we name rupicolin. The diversity of cotinga plumage carotenoid pigments is hypothesized to be derived via four metabolic pathways from lutein, zeaxanthin, β-cryptoxanthin, and β-carotene. All metabolic transformations within the four pathways can be described by six or seven different enzymatic reactions. Three of these reactions are shared among three precursor pathways and are responsible for eight different metabolically derived carotenoid molecules. The function of cotinga plumage carotenoid diversity was analyzed with reflectance spectrophotometry of plumage patches and a tetrahedral model of avian color visual perception. The evolutionary history of the origin of this diversity is analyzed phylogenetically. The color space analyses document that the evolutionarily derived metabolic modifications of dietary xanthophylls have resulted in the creation of distinctive orange-red and purple visual colors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1095-1116
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Comparative Physiology B: Biochemical, Systemic, and Environmental Physiology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Endocrinology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology


  • Color space modeling
  • Phylogeny
  • Plumage coloration


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