Animal color phenotypes are invariably influenced by both their biotic community and the abiotic environments. A host of hypotheses have been proposed for how variables such as solar radiation, habitat shadiness, primary productivity, temperature, rainfall, and community diversity might affect animal color traits. However, while individual factors have been linked to coloration in specific contexts, little is known about which factors are most important across broad taxonomic and geographic scales. Using data collected from 570 species of birds and 424 species of butterflies from Australia, which inhabit an area spanning a latitudinal range of 35° and covering deserts, tropical and temperate forests, savannas, and heathlands, we test multiple hypotheses from the coloration literature and assess their relative importance. We show that bird and butterfly species exhibit more reflective and less saturated colors in better-lit environments, a pattern that is robust across an array of variables expected to influence the intensity or quality of ambient light in an environment. Both taxa display more diverse colors in regions with greater net primary production and longer growing seasons. Models that included variables related to energy inputs and resources in ecosystems have better explanatory power for bird and butterfly coloration overall than do models that included community diversity metrics. However, the diversity of the bird community in an environment was the single most powerful predictor of color pattern variation in both birds and butterflies. We observed strong similarities across taxa in the covariance between color and environmental factors, suggesting the presence of fundamental macroecological drivers of visual appearance across disparate taxa.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
Thanks go to Evan Webster and Jala Katin for providing invaluable data wrangling and computational support. R. L. Dalrymple was funded by an Australian Postgraduate Award, UNSW Research Excellence Award, an E&ERC start up grant, and the Wiley Blackwell fundamental ecology award, and by an ARC discovery grant (DP140102861) to A. T. Moles. D. J. Kemp was supported by the Australian Research Council (grant DP140104107) and the Australia-Pacific Science Foundation (grant APSF10/9).
© 2017 by the Ecological Society of America
- abiotic environment
- community diversity
- ecological gradients