Exposure To UV Radiance Predicts Repeated Evolution Of Concealed Black Skin In Birds
Plumage is among the most well-studied components of integumentary colouration. However, plumage conceals most skin in birds, and as a result the presence, evolution and function of skin colour remains unexplored. Here we show, using a database of 2259 species encompassing >99% of bird genera, that melanin-rich, black skin is found in a small but sizeable percentage (~5%) of birds, and that it evolved over 100 times. The spatial distribution of black skin follows Gloger’s rule, which states that pigmentation of endothermic animals increases towards the equator. Furthermore, most black-skinned birds inhabit high irradiation regions, and tend to be bald and/or have white feathers. Thus, taken together, our results suggest that melanin-rich, black skin helps to protect birds against ultraviolet irradiation. More generally, our results illustrate that feathered skin colour varies taxonomically, ontogenetically and temporally, providing an additional dimension for avian colour research.