Ultraviolet plumage colors predict mate preferences in starlings

Andrew T.D. Bennett, Innes C. Cuthill, Julian C. Partridge, Klaus Lunau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

288 Citations (Scopus)


Avian plumage has long been used to test theories of sexual selection, with humans assessing the colors. However, many birds see in the ultraviolet (<400 nm), to which humans are blind. Consequently, it is important to know whether natural variation in UV reflectance from plumage functions in sexual signaling. We show that female starlings rank males differently when UV wavelengths are present or absent. Principal component analysis of ≃1300 reflectance spectra (300-700 nm) taken from sexually dimorphic plumage regions of males predicted preference under the UV+ treatment. Under UV- conditions, females ranked males in a different and nonrandom order, but plumage reflectance in the human visible spectrum did not predict choice. Natural variation in UV reflectance is thus important in avian mate assessment, and the prevailing light environment can have profound effects on observed mating preferences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8618-8621
Number of pages4
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 1997
Externally publishedYes


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