Melanin coloration in New World orioles I: carotenoid masking and pigment dichromatism in the orchard oriole complex


  • Christopher M. Hofmann,

  • Kevin J. McGraw,

  • Thomas W. Cronin,

  • Kevin E. Omland

C. M. Hofmann (correspondence), T. W. Cronin and K. E. Omland, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD 21250, USA. E-mail: – K. J. McGraw, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287, USA.


Carotenoids produce the brilliant red, orange, and yellow colors of many animals. However, melanin pigments can also confer some of these same hues. Because carotenoid and melanin colors are produced in different ways and may serve different signaling functions, either within or between species, it is important to establish whether one or both types of pigment are responsible for coloration. We have discovered what appears to be an evolutionary switch from carotenoid- to melanin-based color in two sexually dichromatic New World orioles. Using a combination of reflectance spectrometry and chromatographic analyses of plumage pigments, we found that the chestnut plumage of adult male orchard orioles Icterus spurius is produced predominantly by phaeomelanins. Orchard oriole feathers also contain carotenoids, which appear to be masked by the high concentration of phaeomelanins. In contrast, both carotenoids and phaeomelanins appear to contribute to color in adult male Fuertes's orioles I. fuertesi. Moreover, yellow yearling male and female plumage in both species is produced by carotenoids alone. The masking of carotenoids with phaeomelanins in orchard orioles is interesting in light of the signaling roles that carotenoids are thought to play. In addition, these plumage differences produce a unique case of age and sexual pigment dimorphism in orchard and Fuertes's orioles.