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Red Bird Genetics

May 23, 2016

Scientists uncover the genes behind birds’ flashy red plumage.



Diet, DNA, and feathers. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Birds with red feathers use them to impress potential mates and intimidate the competition. They get their fiery plumage from the foods they eat.

JOE CORBO (Washington University School of Medicine):

Many birds consume seeds and fruit that contains yellow molecules called carotenoids and then process these to create red carotenoids, which can in some species then be deposited into feathers.


That’s Washington University Medical School geneticist Joe Corbo. Now he and an international team of researchers have discovered the enzyme responsible for converting the yellow pigments into red ones. They were surprised to discover that almost all birds have a copy of the gene, which likely aids color vision. But they report in Current Biology that only some species have evolved the ability to regulate the gene so that it produces eye-catching crimson plumage. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society.