Morphogenesis of Iridescent Feathers in Anna's Hummingbird Calypte anna

Liliana D'alba, Melissa Meadows, Rafael Maia, Jong Souk Yeo, Marie Manceau, Matthew D. Shawkey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Color is a phenotypic trait of utmost importance, particularly in birds, which are known for their diverse color signals and color-producing mechanisms including pigment-based colors, light scattering from nanostructured feather tissues and combinations thereof. Bright iridescent plumage colors of hummingbirds are caused by light scattering by an organized array of flattened, pigment organelles, containing air-filled vesicles, called melanosomes. These hollow platelets are organized in multilayer arrays that contain numerous sharp air/melanin refractive index interfaces, producing brilliant iridescent colors. Despite their ecological significance and potential for inspiration of new optical materials, how platelets form and spatially arrange in nanostructures in growing feathers remains unknown. Here, we tested the hypothesis that melanosome formation and organization occurs mostly through passive self-assembly processes by assembling a developmental time series of growing hummingbird feathers using optical and electron microscopy. We show that hummingbird platelets contain air bubbles or vesicles upon their formation in pigment-producing cells, melanocytes. When melanosomes are transferred to neighboring keratinocytes (the cells shaping barbule structure) they drastically expand in size; and variation in this enlargement appears to be driven by physical constraints caused by the placement of the melanosomes within the barbule plate and their proximity to other melanosomes. As the barbule elongates and narrows, polymerizing feather corneous beta-protein orients melanosomes unilaterally, forcing them into a stacked configuration. These results reveal potentially novel forces driving the self-assembly of the nanostructures producing some of the brightest colors in nature.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1502-1510
Number of pages9
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Oct 1

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Medicine(all)


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