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Data and code from: Evolution of brilliant iridescent feather nanostructures

Cite this dataset

Nordén, Klara; Eliason, Chad; Stoddard, Mary Caswell (2021). Data and code from: Evolution of brilliant iridescent feather nanostructures [Dataset]. Dryad.


The brilliant iridescent plumage of birds creates some of the most stunning color displays known in the natural world. Iridescent plumage colors are produced by nanostructures in feathers and have evolved in a wide variety of birds. The building blocks of these structures—melanosomes (melanin-filled organelles)—come in a variety of forms, yet how these different forms contribute to color production across birds remains unclear. Here, we leverage evolutionary analyses, optical simulations and reflectance spectrophotometry to uncover general principles that govern the production of brilliant iridescence. We find that a key feature that unites all melanosome forms in brilliant iridescent structures is thin melanin layers. Birds have achieved this in multiple ways: by decreasing the size of the melanosome directly, by hollowing out the interior, or by flattening the melanosome into a platelet. The evolution of thin melanin layers unlocks color-producing possibilities, more than doubling the range of colors that can be produced with a thick melanin layer and simultaneously increasing brightness. We discuss the implications of these findings for the evolution of iridescent structures in birds and propose two evolutionary paths to brilliant iridescence.


Please see the associated README files to see how datasets have been collected and processed.

Usage notes

Please see the associated README files for information on how to use code and data.


Princeton University

Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering

Grainger Bioinformatics Center

National Science Foundation, Award: 2029538

National Science Foundation, Award: 2112468