QBI Researchers map structure of Flirty Feathers

10 Feb 2011

Researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute are one step closer to unlocking the role of colour in animal courtship rituals after identifying a unique feather structure in birds of paradise.

The New Guinea-based birds of paradise have long been famed for their elaborate forest floor dances.

With their feathers producing dazzling iridescent and metallic effects as they catch the light, these courtship dances are designed to showcase the birds’ brilliant plumage to prospective mates.

Now scientists within QBI’s Sensory Neurobiology Group have uncovered exactly why the dance moves of one kind of bird of paradise – the male Lawes’ parotia – create even larger and more abrupt colour changes than is possible with “ordinary” iridescent plumage such as that possessed by peacocks.

Researcher Professor Justin Marshall explains that the novel effect is due to the unique structure of the parotia’s feathers, which function like multi-layered reflective mirrors.

“The feather 'barbules' have a special boomerang-shaped profile that allows them to produce not the usual one but three coloured mirrors,” he says.

“These reflect yellow and blue light in different directions to make dramatic colour changes as the bird displays on the forest floor.”

The research, to feature in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, provides insight into the evolution and function of colour and colour vision in the avian world.

Further research is needed to establish exactly what information these dramatic displays provide to female birds of paradise, but it seems certain that hue changes play a crucial role when it comes to how to choose a mate.

Though colour is not quite so important in human courtship rituals, comparative neurobiology suggests that snappy dressers and dancers are still more likely to succeed in the reproductive stakes.

“The take-home message for men is to wear the Armani suit rather than your Stubbies and thongs,” says Marshall.

NOTES: Photographs are available.


Media Contact:
Denise Cullen
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Notes to the Editor:

Justin Marshall completed his Doctorate of Philosophy in Neurobiology at the University of Sussex in 1991. He moved to the Vision Touch and Hearing Research Centre within the School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Queensland in 1996, before being recruited to the Queensland Brain Institute in 2010. His predominant research interests include colour and polarisation vision in the marine environment; visual communications between animals; and colour communication in parrots and birds of paradise.

The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) was established as a research institute of the University of Queensland in 2003. The Institute is now operating out of a new $63 million state-of-the-art facility and houses 27 Principal Investigators with strong international reputations.  QBI is one of the largest neuroscience institutes in the world dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying brain function.