Astaxanthin is responsible for the pink plumage flushin Franklin’s and Ring-billed gulls

Franklins Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan) Science Article 1


Carotenoid pigments produce the red, orange, and yellow plumage of many birds. Carotenoidcontainingfeathers are typically rich in color and displayed by all adult members of the species. In many gulls andterns, however, an unusual light pink coloring (or flush) to the normally white plumage can be found in highlyvariable proportions within and across populations. The carotenoid basis of plumage flush was determined in anElegant Tern (Sterna elegans; Hudon and Brush 1990), but it is not clear if all larids use this same mechanism forpink plumage coloration. We examined the carotenoid content of pink feathers in Franklin’s (Larus pipixcan) andRing-billed (Larus delawarensis) gulls and found that a single carotenoid-astaxanthin-was present. Astaxanthinwas primarily responsible for the flush in Elegant Terns as well, but was accompanied by other carotenoids (e.g.,canthaxanthin and zeaxanthin), as is typical of most astaxanthin-containing bird feathers. In both gull and ternspecies, carotenoids were contained within feathers and did not occur on the plumage surface in preen oil, as somehave previously speculated.We hypothesize that some gulls turn pink because they acquire unusually high amountsof astaxanthin in their diets at the time of feather growth. It is tempting to link the increase in sightings of pink RingbilledGulls since the late 1990s with the introduction of pure, synthetic astaxanthin to the diets of hatchery-raisedsalmon.

Kevin J. McGraw and Lisa S. Hardy, J. Field Ornithol. 77(1):29-33, 2006

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