Review: an embryo's eye view of avian eggshell pigmentation


  • Golo Maurer,

  • Steven J. Portugal,

  • Phillip Cassey

G. Maurer ( and P. Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Univ. of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia. Present address of G M and P C: School of Biosciences, Univ. of Birmingham, Edgbaston, B15 2TT, UK. – S. J. Portugal, School of Biosciences, Univ. of Birmingham, Edgbaston, B15 2TT, UK. Present address of S J P: Structure and Motion Lab, Royal Veterinary College, Hawkshead Lane, North Mymms, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, AL9 7TA, UK.


Current research into the evolution and adaptive function of avian eggshell pigmentation, including maculation, has focused mostly on signalling-based and structural function hypotheses but ignored the potential consequences of shell pigmentation for the developing avian embryo, especially in moderating the embryo's interaction with its light environment. The exposure of the eggs to sunlight that frequently accompanies avian incubation behaviour is one of the major evolutionary steps setting apart birds and reptiles, and coincides with the appearance of eggshell pigmentation. This suggests that shell pigments could play a major role in ensuring the successful development of the avian embryo. We propose that the effects of shell pigments on the egg contents should be considered in addition to established hypotheses of shell pigmentation such as crypsis, egg recognition or a possible structural function. This approach has the potential to identify trade-offs between different pigment functions and to resolve some of the long standing paradoxa in the evolution of eggshell colour, such as the occurrence of conspicuous blue eggs in passerines or the secondary evolution of white eggshells in cavity nesters. In particular, we identify seven hypotheses, which address how the interaction of eggshell pigments and the light environment may influence embryonic development. These hypotheses are the: thermo-regulation; UV-B protection; photo-acceleration; lateralization; circadian rhythm; photo-reactivation; and antimicrobial defence. We believe that the understanding of eggshell pigmentation will greatly benefit from taking these hypotheses into consideration when studying the functional significance of eggshell pigmentation and suggest a number of promising directions for future experimental and comparative research.