ABOVE: A brightly colored house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) shows off his red plumage.

Male house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) that are have more brightly colored red breast feathers are healthier than duller, yellower ones, and their coloration visually signals their fitness to potential mates. Just how the color is linked to health has been a puzzle to researchers. A study published September 25 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has found that the carotenoid pigments that give the birds their reddish hue are associated with the performance of mitochondria, where cell respiration and energy production take place. 

A team led by Geoffrey Hill and Wendy Hood at Auburn University examined liver tissue from 83 house finches and categorized the breast feather color of a subset of the birds. The researchers found red carotenoids inside the livers’ mitochondria and determined that the 10...

The molting male house finch on the left is considered drab, while the one on the right has more brightly colored feathers.

G. E. Hill et al., “Plumage redness signals mitochondrial function in the house finch,” doi:10.1098/rspb.2019.1354, Proc R Soc B, 2019.

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com

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