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Understanding genetic and cellular bases of adult form remains a fundamental goal at the intersection of developmental and evolutionary biology. The skin pigment cells of vertebrates, derived from embryonic neural crest, are a useful system for elucidating mechanisms of fate specification, pattern formation, and how particular phenotypes impact organismal behavior and ecology. In a survey of fishes, including the zebrafish , we identified two populations of white pigment cells-leucophores-one of which arises by transdifferentiation of adult melanophores and another of which develops from a yellow-orange xanthophore or xanthophore-like progenitor. Single-cell transcriptomic, mutational, chemical, and ultrastructural analyses of zebrafish leucophores revealed cell-type-specific chemical compositions, organelle configurations, and genetic requirements. At the organismal level, we identified distinct physiological responses of leucophores during environmental background matching, and we showed that leucophore complement influences behavior. Together, our studies reveal independently arisen pigment cell types and mechanisms of fate acquisition in zebrafish and illustrate how concerted analyses across hierarchical levels can provide insights into phenotypes and their evolution.