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Detecting pigments from colourful eggshells of extinct birds

Abstract

The known chemical basis of diverse avian eggshell coloration is generated by the same two classes of tetrapyrrole pigments in most living birds. We aimed to extend the evolutionary scope of these patterns by detecting pigments from extinct birds’ eggs. In our samples biliverdin was successfully extracted from subfossil shell fragments of the blue-green egg-laying upland moa Megalapteryx didinus, while protoporphyrin was extracted from the beige eggs of two other extinct moa species. Our data on pigment detection from eggshells of other extant paleognath birds, together with published information on other modern lineages, confirm tetrapyrroles as ubiquitous and conserved pigments contributing to diverse eggshell colours throughout avian evolution.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland for major support. We thank D. Dearborn, M. Hyland, C. Moskat, H. Silyn-Roberts, The University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor’s Development Fund and the Human Frontier Science Program (to P.C., T.G. and M.E.H.) for assistance, discussions, and funding.

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Correspondence to Mark E. Hauber.

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Igic, B., Greenwood, D.R., Palmer, D.J. et al. Detecting pigments from colourful eggshells of extinct birds. Chemoecology 20, 43–48 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00049-009-0038-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00049-009-0038-2

Keywords

  • Egg matrix
  • Pigmentation
  • Radiation
  • Ratite