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Pink-Headed Duck: Researchers Unravel Mystery Behind Unique Feathers

Jan 29, 2016 09:18 AM EST

An unusual species of waterfowl, adorned with pink head feathers was last seen in the wild in India in 1949. Until recently, however, researchers were unsure how the extinct species - Rhodonessa caryophyllacea - got its vivid plumage.

In the latest study, Daniel Thomas of Massey University in New Zealand and Helen James of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History used a taxidermied specimen from the Smithsonian's collection to unravel the mystery. They used a non-destructive technique known as Raman spectroscopy, which allowed them to thoroughly investigate the bird's feathers without needing to pluck or otherwise damage them - this is rather important when examining an extinct or rare creature. 

Their analysis ultimately revealed the Pink-headed Duck used the same organic pigments - carotenoids - as flamingos and cardinals to produce their pink feathers. (Scroll to read more...)

(Photo : Daniel Thomas )
The Pink-headed Duck's unique coloration came from carotenoid pigments.

Interestingly, however, carotenoids are rather rare among gamebirds. In fact, the only place carotenoids have previously been found in the feathers of a duck is along tiny ear spots of an Australian species known as Malacorhynchus membranaceus, which is otherwise black, brown, and white.

Their spectroscopy results also suggest that the plumage of the two ducks may even contain the same highly specific type of carotenoid - but since the two are only distantly related, they would have evolved their pink feathers independently, researchers say.

"Working with the Pink-headed Duck specimen was an incredible privilege," Thomas said in a statement. "While the extinction of the Pink-headed Duck has not been explicitly confirmed, it has sadly not been seen alive now for many decades." 

When it was alive, the Pink-headed Duck thrived in the Gangetic plains of India and Bangladesh. 

"The duck specimen was a physical and somber reminder of extinction, but I was grateful that the study skin had been preserved in the collections at the Smithsonian Institution," Thomas continued. "This gave us an opportunity to make new natural history discoveries that emphasize the value of other living species."

However, some parts of the bird's vivid plumage remains a mystery.

"We do not yet know which type of the forty or so carotenoid pigments makes Pink-headed Ducks pink -- but our ability to detect this using the Raman technique is improving, so further insights may be just around the corner," Dr. Mary Caswell Stoddard, an expert on bird coloration from Harvard University, added.

Their study was recently published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances

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