Do glucocorticoids or carotenoids mediate plumage coloration in parrots? An experiment in Platycercus elegans

Mathew L. Berg*, Ben Knott, Raoul F.H. Ribot, Katherine L. Buchanan, Andrew T.D. Bennett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Conspicuous coloration can indicate phenotypic quality, and may reflect exposure or vulnerability to stress, or access to essential nutrients such as pigments. Although the production of pigmented colours is well understood, much less is known about how structural colours are affected by physiological state. In this study, we tested whether glucocorticoids (corticosterone) predicted expression of plumage coloration in an Australian parrot, the crimson rosella (Platycercus elegans). Parrots provide an interesting and unique test, as they possess conspicuous coloration produced by distinctive pigments known as psittacofulvins, in addition to structural coloration. We have previously documented that coloration in P. elegans is condition-dependent and responds to dietary manipulation. Here, n = 21 P. elegans underwent a dietary manipulation (including food restriction or carotenoid supplementation) during which they moulted, and the change in reflectance was measured for three structural and three pigmentary plumage patches. Stress-induced corticosterone (10 min after handling) measured at the start of the experiment predicted change in coloration in two pigmentary patches (crown and front). We also found that change in stress-induced corticosterone during the experiment was associated with the change in coloration of the crown and two structural patches (cheek and epaulette). Baseline corticosterone (<3 min after handling) was not associated with any measure of coloration. We found no effects of dietary manipulation on baseline or stress-induced corticosterone, but carotenoid supplementation was associated with an increase in a measure of chronic stress (heterophil/lymphocyte ratio), and the corticosterone response to handling decreased over the course of the study. Our results suggest that corticosterone may be linked to colour expression more broadly than previously recognised, including psittacofulvin and structural coloration in parrots, and they confirm the independence of plumage pigmentation in parrots from carotenoid accumulation. Moreover, our study provides new insight into the stress responses of Psittaciformes, one of the most highly threatened avian orders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)82-90
Number of pages9
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
Early online date16 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2019


  • Corticosterone
  • Crimson rosella
  • H/L ratio
  • Immunocompetence
  • Psittacofulvins
  • Structural coloration


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