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Author Topic: [10/05/10] A Guide To Feather Colors  (Read 1887 times)

Offline Loki

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[10/05/10] A Guide To Feather Colors
« on: January 02, 2011, 08:34:04 PM »
A Guide To Feather Colors

The recent discovery of a fossil penguin from Peru (click here or Ed Yong's take with heaps of pictures), complete with preserved feathers and melanosomes that reveal their color, prompted me to dive a little deeper into this topic. Keep in mind this is an area I'm still learning about myself, so please feel free to add corrections or keep the discussion going in the comments.

For those of us interested in palaeontography,* the recent work by Jakob Vinther (see original post here) and others on reconstructing the life coloration of prehistoric animals has been some of the most exciting paleontology research of the decade. In the carefree halcyon days before fossil melanosomes were recognized, I and other artists were given free reign over the external appearance of our feathered dinosaurs. But since Vinther's paper, I've been inspired to look into exactly what biological factors go into bird coloration. Needless to say, this is something not a lot of others have probably looked at, as most paleoart follows the old philosophy that when it comes to color, anything goes. Apparently though, this was far from true even before Vinther and his colleagues came along.

* Since this is John Conway's term I reckon I'm stuck using the Queen's preferred spelling, sorta like "pycnofibres". Anyway, that's just a fancy way of saying "paleoart".

There are several processes that add color to the feathers of birds and, presumably, other feathered dinosaurs. At the most basic level, these can be divided into structural color and pigmentation (though sometimes it isn't hat simple, as I'll explain down the page).

Structural Colors

Structural colors come from the actual physical structure of the feather. At the microscopic level, feathers exhibiting structural color have a "foamy" texture of tiny spheres or channels which enclose minute air bubbles. Light scatters through these bubbles in various ways depending on the exact arrangement. The development of these extremely complex structures has recently been covered by Dufresne and colleagues (2009), so you can track down that paper for a technical treatment of structural feather colors (there's also a good rundown of their research here).

Basically, structural colors can do two things: produce colors not found among the various pigments, and enhance or change pigment colors. For example, among amniotes, there is no such thing as a blue biological pigment. The blue feathers of a bird are produced by scattering due to structural colors. Similarly, iridescence as seen in many birds comes from the feather structure. A bird with bright white or pitch black feathers likely uses structural colors to achieve this effect--without them, these colors would be flatter, duller, and less vivid. Structural coloration can act as a filter, combining with pigments to form new colors. In most birds that have them, green feathers are produced by layering yellow pigmentation nodules over a "blue" underlying structure.

Does it fossilize?: You bet! Iridescent feathers have been reported by Vinther, and it's often apparently to the naked eye alone. There are some stunning examples of iridescent insect fossils out there. Structurally colored feathers have been recognized by a distinct arrangement where a thin layer of densely aligned melanin overlies a looser conglomerate of melanosomes. This can be seen even if the overlying keratin scattering layer has degraded away (Vinther et al. 2008). This kind of structure-via-melanin is also found in the dazzlingly iridescent plumage of hummingbirds (Prum, 2006).

What it means for dinobirds: Blue, green, jet black and bright white can't be present in dinobirds that lack structural color in their feathers. I've said before that structural colors are impossible in the monofilament integument of primitive coelurosaurs. However, I'm not so sure that's true. The main difference between hair and feathers isn't the structure of the filaments, it's the structure of the underlying molecules. Hair is alpha-keratin, a helix-shaped molecule like DNA. beta-keratin, which makes up feathers, has a layered and pleated underlying molecular structure more conducive to structural scattering. So a blue-fuzzed Struthiomimus may be possible. However, in the iridescent fossil feathers studied by Vinther et al. (2008), the structural color was restricted to the barbules, which are not present in many primitive feathered dinosaurs.


Most bird colors are due in whole or in part to pigmentation, or lack thereof. There are several different kinds of pigments, with the two most common being melanins and carotenoids.

Melanins are what all the hubbub is about. Not only are these easily identified in fossil feathers, but their shape and concentration can tell you what color they gave their feathers. Melanins are responsible for black (though not deep, solid black, which require an extra push from structural color), gray, and a wide variety of browns through rufous orange colors. Melanins are the main pigment in mammalian hair, so think of the spectrum of mammal colors when imagining what shades are possible with melanin. A lack of melanin will produce white.

Does it fossilize?: Of course! I've discussed the relevant melanosome papers in the past, posts linked below.

What it means for dinobirds: For carnivorous dinobirds, these are where the action is. Pure carnivores will usually lack the dietary requirements for carotenoids, so structural colors plus melanin are all they've got (and maybe porphyrins, see below). It seems odd that of the three described prehistoric dinobirds with color, they all seem to have the same color palate. Sinosauropteryx (rufous and white), Anchiornis (gray, black, white, brown, and rufous), and now Inkayacu (gray, white, and rufous-brown). These are all carnivorous/fish eating species, so it makes sense that they don't exhibit any more exciting colors. However, it's also possible that we're missing something: In their 2009 Anchiornis paper, Li and colleagues specifically noted that they didn't test for carotenoids. However, I would imagine that given their prior 2008 paper, they did look for structural color or at least iridescence in fossil feathers.

Carotenoids are, by and large, what give birds their characteristically bright colors. The trick is that carotenoids can't be directly synthesized by the body in animals (some can, but there need to be other types of carotenoids present to convert). Carotenoids come almost exclusive from a diet of plants or, secondarily, of things that sequester a lot of carotenoids in their body tissues (like plant-eating invertebrates and some fish). Gulls living near salmon farms have begun shown hints of pink in their feathers: this is because farm-raised salmon are fed artificial carotenoid sources to make their flesh pink, and these are transferred to the birds. The most unusual source of carotenoids, this time among a carnivorous species, is the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus, which gets its bright yellow facial skin by eating the droppings of ungulates, dropping which yield no significant nutritional value and appear to be eaten only for the carotenoids (McGraw, 2006)! Indeed, while carnivores aren't usually brightly colored, McGraw noted that there may be selective pressures in some species to add weird things to a diet in order to become more colorful.

Does it fossilize? Yes, but it looks the same as melanin, and unlike melanin, you can't tell a carotenoid by its shape. According to Li et al. (2009), special chemical tests would have to be run to determine if a melanosome is really a carotenoid, and what color it was.

What it means for dinobirds: Even though we haven't yet identified carotenoids in fossils, we know that they can only be present in animals that are herbivores or feed on herbivorous insects. Scansoriopterygids, for example, could have been brightly colored by carotenoids, since they presumably ate tree-dwelling arthropods. Alvarezsaurids would probably lack carotenoids if they are mainly termites and other social, non-colorful bugs, as has been suggested in the lit. Jeholornis and Jinfengopteryx, two dinobirds with direct evidence of seed eating, are prime candidates for reds, oranges, and yellows (or even greens, with added structural color). Also, keep in mind that red carotenoids from crustaceans, when eaten by birds with otherwise melanin-free feathers, are what give pink wading birds like flamingos their distinctive colors. This is why many artists restore some ctenochasmatid pterosaurs, especially Pterodaustro, as pink (though how all this applies to pycnofibres is still anyone's guess).

Carotenoids are often used by modern birds as a sign of fitness when choosing a mate. Because carotenoids have to be eaten, a bird with a poor diet will be drabber than a bird that is very successful at finding food. A flamingo kept in a zoo will turn white if its diet isn't artificially supplemented with red carotenoids.

Carotenoids can also impact the eye color of a bird, as well as beak color and the color of the scales on its feet... even the yellow yolk of a chicken egg is due to carotenoids (some birds use Flavin for yolk color, see below). Keep in mind that adding orange, yellow or green feathers, or red, orange or yellow beaks, implies your dinosaur is eating a diet containing carotenoids.

Porphyrins are perhaps most famous for lending blood its red color and leaves their green (both heme and chlorophyl are porphyrins), but it can also color feathers, adding browns and reds (and green, but only in the turacoverdin pigments found in Turacos). Interestingly, porphyrins may have a role in temperature regulation. In addition to insulating eggs (see below), they are mainly found in the downy feathers of nocturnal birds like owls, and those that are active in colder temperatures.

The blue of American Robin eggs is created by porphyrins, as is most other egg coloration. In fact, some researchers note a correlation between porphyrin in eggshells and nesting behavior. Pure white eggs are only found in birds which nest in shelter like under foliage, and which constantly attend their eggs. Species which leave the eggs partly exposed to the elements have colorful porphyrin-containing shells, possibly because of the supposed temperature regulating effect. Paleoartists might want to consider this when drawing various dinosaur nests.

Does it fossilize?: I'm guessing no, as we're dealing at the molecular level here. However, I wonder if porphyrins could be detected via chemical analysis, like the one used to detect beta keratin in the feathers of Shuvuuia deserti.

What it means for dinobirds: This one is the big question mark. I've never seen references that describe a method to detect porphyrins in fossils. Luckily, they're mainly only brown and dull red, colors that could conceivably be found with melanin alone. If anything, porphyrins give us license to add some extra reddish splashes to purely carnivorous dinobirds, especially those that may have been active at night or in cold climates, like troodontids.

Uncommon pigments: There are a variety of minor pigments that can color a bird's feathers. Pterins are responsible for the yellow, red, white, and orange colors of some bird eyes (in humans, eye color is controlled by melanin; low melanin results in blue eyes, and some babies eyes darken as the melanin levels increase). Flavin pigments cause many egg yolks to be yellow.

Psittacofulvins are found only in (you guessed it) parrots, and create yellows oranges and reds in place of carotenoids, which parrots have evolved to sequester, possibly for nutritional reasons. There are some undescribed pigments known only in penguins that add florescence to their yellow display feathers.

The take-home message:

When you add color to a feathered dinosaur restoration, you're presenting an implicit hypothesis about its diet, lifestyle, and soft tissue anatomy. when doing serious paleoart, keep these constraints in mind, and use them to make your art more interesting and your science more rigorous. Nobody can tell you not to draw a Utahraptor with a bright red face, but if you're trying to make paleontography and not just a bit of fun, why not depict it munching on a big, red fish or a pile of Sauroposeidon poop?


Offline Voidrae

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Re: [10/05/10] A Guide To Feather Colors
« Reply #1 on: January 10, 2011, 03:34:14 PM »
Thanks for all the recent new news, Lokers!
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Offline JillBeck

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Re: [10/05/10] A Guide To Feather Colors
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2018, 05:10:06 AM »
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