How parrots see their colours: Novelty in the visual pigments of Platycercus elegans

B. Knott, Wayne Davies, Livia dos Santos Carvalho, M.L. Berg, K.L. Buchanan, J.K. Bowmaker, A.T.D. Bennett, David Hunt

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23 Citations (Scopus)


Intraspecific differences in retinal physiology have been demonstrated in several vertebrate taxa and are often subject to adaptive evolution. Nonetheless, such differences are currently unknown in birds, despite variations in habitat, behaviour and visual stimuli that might influence spectral sensitivity. The parrot Platycercus elegans is a species complex with extreme plumage colour differences between (and sometimes within) subspecies, making it an ideal candidate for intraspecific differences in spectral sensitivity. Here, the visual pigments of P. elegans were fully characterised through molecular sequencing of five visual opsin genes and measurement of their absorbance spectra using microspectrophotometry. Three of the genes, LWS, SW1 and SWS2, encode for proteins similar to those found in other birds; however, both the RH1 and RH2 pigments had polypeptides with carboxyl termini of different lengths and unusual properties that are unknown previously for any vertebrate visual pigment. Specifically, multiple RH2 transcripts and protein variants (short, medium and long) were identified for the first time that are generated by alternative splicing of downstream coding and non-coding exons. Our work provides the first complete characterisation of the visual pigments of a parrot, perhaps the most colourful order of birds, and moreover suggests more variability in avian eyes than hitherto considered. © 2013. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4454-4461
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number23
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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