Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Journal of Experimental Biology





First Page


Last Page



Skip to Next Section Iridescence is produced by coherent scattering of light waves from alternating layers of materials of different refractive indices. In birds, iridescent colours are produced by feather barbules when light is scattered from alternating layers of keratin, melanin and air. The structure and organization of these layers, and hence the appearance of bird species with different types of plumage iridescence, varies extensively. One principal distinction between different types of iridescent colours is whether they are produced by a single pair of layers or by multiple pairs of layers. Multi-layer iridescence, such as that displayed by hummingbirds, has been relatively well characterized, but single-layer iridescence has only recently been modeled successfully. Here we use electron microscopy, spectrometry and thin-film optical modeling to investigate the glossy, ultraviolet-blue iridescent plumage colouration of adult male satin bowerbirds Ptilonorhynchus violaceus minor. The flattened barbules of adult males are composed of a superficial keratin layer overlying a melanin layer that is several granules thick. A thin-film model based on the thickness of the keratin layer and its two associated interfaces (air/keratin and keratin/melanin) generates predicted reflectance spectra that closely match measured spectra. In addition, hues predicted from this model are positively correlated with measured hues. As predicted from our thin-film model, measured hues shifted to shorter wavelengths at increasing angles of incidence and reflectance. Moreover, we found that individual variation in barbule nanostructure can predict measured variation in both hue and UV-chroma. Thus, we have characterized the microstructure of satin bowerbird barbules, uncovered the mechanisms responsible for producing ultraviolet iridescence in these barbules, and provided the first evidence of a nanostructural basis for individual variation in iridescent plumage colour.



Included in

Biology Commons