dendroica: Female color perception affects evolution of male…

Thursday, December 25th, 2014


Female color perception affects evolution of male plumage in birds

The expression of a gene involved in female birds’ color vision is linked to the evolution of colorful plumage in males, reports a new study from the University of Chicago. The findings, published Nov. 26 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, confirm the essential role of female color perception in mate selection and sexual dimorphism.

“This is the first time an aspect of the visual system in birds has been directly associated with plumage evolution,” said Natasha Bloch, PhD, who authored the study while a graduate student in ecology & evolution at the University of Chicago. “It tells us color perception plays an important role in the evolution of the spectacular diversity of colors we see in nature.”

Striking differences in coloration between males and females are found across bird species, but the evolutionary causes of this variation are poorly understood. Female color vision and perception are thought to play a role, but measuring this behavior in the laboratory has proven difficult.

To study the link, Bloch focused on opsins – specialized proteins in the retina that are responsible for detecting light. In birds, four types of opsins contribute to color vision, each with different sensitivity ranges for certain wavelengths of light.

Bloch measured gene expression levels of these opsins in males and females from 16 species of New World warblers, a family of songbirds common across the Americas. She found that opsin expression varied greatly between species. As this is a measure of opsin abundance and density, her results suggest the species vary in their sensitivity to and ability to perceive color.

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Photo credit: Mdf, DickDaniels, Wikimedia Commons.

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