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Signal evolution and morphological complexity in hummingbirds (Aves: Trochilidae)

Cite this dataset

Eliason, Chad; Maia, Rafael; Parra, Juan; Shawkey, Matthew (2019). Signal evolution and morphological complexity in hummingbirds (Aves: Trochilidae) [Dataset]. Dryad.


Understanding how animal signals are produced is critical for understanding their evolution because complexity and modularity in the underlying morphology can affect evolutionary patterns. Hummingbird feathers show some of the brightest and most iridescent colors in nature. These are produced by optically complex stacks of hollow, platelet-shaped organelles called melanosomes. Neither how these morphologies produce colors nor their evolution has been systematically studied. We first used nanoscale morphological measurements and optical modeling to identify the physical basis of color production in 34 hummingbird species. We found that, in general, the melanosome stacks function as multilayer reflectors, with platelet thickness and air space size explaining variation in hue (color) and saturation (color purity). Additionally, light rays reflected from the outer keratin surface interact with those reflected by small, superficial melanosomes to cause secondary reflectance peaks, primarily in short (blue) wavelengths. We then compared variation of both the morphological components and the colors they produce. The outer keratin cortex evolves independently and is more variable than other morphological traits, possibly due to functional constraints on melanosome packing. Intriguingly, shorter wavelength colors evolve faster than longer wavelength colors, perhaps due to developmental processes that enables greater lability of the shapes of small melanosomes. Together, these data indicate that increased structural complexity of feather tissues is associated with greater variation in morphology and iridescent coloration.