Where do birds get their red feathers from? According to Esther del Val, from the National History Museum in Barcelona, Spain, and her team, the red carotenoids that give the common crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) its red coloration are produced in the liver, not the skin, as previously thought.
Their findings, published online in Springer’s journal Naturwissenschaften, have implications for understanding the evolution of color signaling in bird species.
Carotenoids have important physiological functions, including antioxidant, immunomodulating, and photoprotectant properties. Carotenoid pigments are also used by many bird species as colorants, and are responsible for most of their red, orange and yellow coloration. In particular, carotenoid-red coloration in birds has been shown to act as an ornament, signaling the nutritional and health status of the individual and its ability to locate high quality resources. Recent studies have suggested that the transformation of carotenoid pigments takes place directly in the follicles during feather growth.
Del Val and her team show for the first time that, contrary to previous assumptions, the liver acts as the main site for the synthesis of carotenoids responsible for the birds’ coloration, not the skin.