|The University of
Patterned feathers, previously thought to be
used only for camouflage in birds, can play an important role in
attracting a mate and fending off rivals, a University of Melbourne study
Ms Thanh-Lan Gluckman, co-author of the paper and Masters of Philosophy
student from the Department of Zoology at the University of Melbourne,
said this finding brought a new perspective to research in animal
communication and evolution.
“The implication of this study is that
feathers don’t need to be bright and showy to be used in sexual signalling
and hence this changes our understanding of animal communication,” she
Hundreds of bird species such as Zebra Finches and Cuckoos
have “barred” patterns on their feathers, which are made up of horizontal
bars alternating dark and light pigmentation side by side.
Darwin wrote of visual communication in birds, we have known that bright
coloured feathers play a role in sexual signalling, for example to attract
females. But the role of barred patterns as a communication signal has
largely been overlooked,” Ms Gluckman said.
The study was a
large-scale comparison of plumage of around 8900 bird species worldwide
(90% of all bird species), and was conducted with former University of
Melbourne lecturer Dr. Gonçalo Cardoso, now at the Research Centre in
Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO), Portugal.
researchers compared barred plumage and other patterns on the body of
males, females, and juvenile birds, to assess what they might be used
While the researchers found evidence that barred plumage is
predominantly used as camouflage, they also found that barred plumage was
much more likely to appear only in males, or only at sexual maturity,
compared to other patterns.
“Furthermore, we found these
differences on the front of the birds, which is an important area for
communication during face-to-face interactions, not on their back, which
is more useful for camouflage when running away or hiding from predators,”
“This is an exciting finding showing an elegant
evolutionary solution to the needs of birds to camouflage as well as to
signal to a potential mate or rival.”
The study has been published
in the prestigious Journal of Evolutionary Biology.