The evolution of bird plumage colouration: a role for feather-degrading bacteria?

Authors: Juan Manuel GRANDE, Juan José NEGRO and María José TORRES

Published: Volume 51(2), December 2004. Pages 375-383.

Language: English

Keywords: Bacillus licheniformis, evolution of bird colour, feather-degrading bacteria, plumage colouration and soil bacteria


Aims: To test the existence of differences in the effects in vitro of a feather-degrading bacteria on bird feathers containing different types of pigments, and thus, of different colours.

Methods: Tubes containing feathers from nine bird species and containing three different pigments or no pigments were inoculated with bacteria (Bacillus licheniformis isolated from soil) and incubated at 37°C during eight days. Feather damage was monitored daily.

Results and Conclusions: At the end of the experiment nearly all feathers were degraded to dust or fibres. However, melanin-containing feathers suffered from earlier bacterial damage than carotenoid-containing feathers or unpigmented feathers. The feathers last showing signs of bacterial damage were those of a parakeet that contained an unknown green pigment. The pigmentation of a feather, and thus its colour, may determine its susceptibility to bacterial degradation. Therefore if feather degrading bacteria could grow on free-ranging birds, they could play an unsuspected role on the evolution of bird plumage colouration.

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