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Owl melanin-based plumage redness is more frequent near than away from the equator: implications on the effect of climate change on biodiversity




Climate change acts as a major new selective agent on many organisms, particularly at high latitudes where climate change is more pronounced than at lower latitudes. Studies are required to predict which species are at a high risk of extinction and whether certain phenotypes may be more affected by climate change than others. The identification of susceptible phenotypes is important for evaluating the potential negative effect of climate change on biodiversity at the inter- and intraspecific levels. Melanin-based coloration is an interesting and easily accessible candidate trait because, within certain species, reddish pheomelanin-based coloration is associated with adaptations to warm climates. However, it is unclear whether the same holds among species. We tested one prediction of this hypothesis in four owl genera (wood, scops, screech, and pygmy owls), namely that darker reddish species are more prevalent near the equator than polewards. Our comparative analysis is consistent with this prediction for the northern hemisphere, suggesting that pale reddish species may be adapted to cold climates and dark reddish species to warmer climates. Thus, climate change may have a larger negative impact on pale pheomelanic owls and favour dark pheomelanic species. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 102, 573–582.