African glossy starlings change color more than 10 times faster than their ancestors and even their modern relatives, according to researchers at The University of Akron and Columbia University. And these relatively rapid changes have led to new species of birds with color combinations previously unseen, according to the study funded in part by the National Science Foundation and published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. (Credit: Sarah Guindre-Parker, Columbia University)

June 10, 2013 — It's not going to happen while you're peering through your binoculars, but African glossy starlings change color more than 10 times faster than their ancestors and even their modern relatives, according to researchers at The University of Akron and Columbia University. And these relatively rapid changes have led to new species of birds with color combinations previously unseen, according to the study funded in part by the National Science Foundation and published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Many people enjoy bird watching because of all the different, beautiful colors of feathers, but this study gives us a closer look into the story of how these colors came to be, and how they changed over their millions of years of evolution," says Rafael Maia, the study's lead author and a graduate student in the Integrated Bioscience program at UA.

Feathers send messages

Just like bar cruisers who don flashy clothes before a night out, birds use feathers to attract the opposite sex and intimidate the competition.

"The feathers aren't just there for flying," Maia says.

The team of scientists used analysis of microscopic feather structures, spectral color analysis and evolutionary modeling to analyze patterns of evolution in African starlings, a diverse group of primarily brightly colored birds known for their metallic sheens. (By comparison, the European starling — the only starling found in the United States — is a drab creature.)

The researchers focused mainly on the different forms of feather melanosomes, the parts of cells (organelles) that carry the dark pigment melanin. Melanosomes are found in all vertebrates and most typically show up as black, brown or gray. But in birds, melanosomes are sometimes organized in a way that interacts especially with light to create colorful, metallic and often iridescent feathers. The melanosomes of the African starling groups evolved to become especially suited to react with light of various wavelengths, according to the researchers.

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