Brown tawny owls moult more flight feathers than grey ones

Authors

  • Patrik Karell,

    1. Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology Group, Environmental and Marine Biology, Dept of Biosciences, Åbo Akademi Univ., Artillerigatan 6, FI-20520 Åbo, Finland.
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  • Jon E. Brommer,

    1. Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology Group, Environmental and Marine Biology, Dept of Biosciences, Åbo Akademi Univ., Artillerigatan 6, FI-20520 Åbo, Finland.
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  • Kari Ahola,

    1. Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology Group, Environmental and Marine Biology, Dept of Biosciences, Åbo Akademi Univ., Artillerigatan 6, FI-20520 Åbo, Finland.
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  • Teuvo Karstinen

    1. Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology Group, Environmental and Marine Biology, Dept of Biosciences, Åbo Akademi Univ., Artillerigatan 6, FI-20520 Åbo, Finland.
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P. Karell, Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology Group, Environmental and Marine Biology, Dept of Biosciences, Åbo Akademi Univ., Artillerigatan 6, FI-20520 Åbo, Finland. E-mail: patrik.karell@abo.fi

Abstract

The mechanisms by which melanin-based colour polymorphism can evolve and be maintained in wild populations are poorly known. Theory predicts that colour morphs have differential sensitivity to environmental conditions. Recently it has been proposed that colour polymorphism covaries genetically with intrinsic and behavioural properties. Plumage moult is a costly and crucial somatic maintenance function in birds. We used a long-term data set consisting of 761 observations on 307 individuals captured between 1985 and 2010 to examine differences in partial flight feather moult between grey (pale) and brown (pheomelanic dark) colour morphs of the tawny owl. We find that the brown morph consistently moult more primary flight feathers than the grey morph whereas there is no clear difference between colour morphs in the moulting of secondary feathers. Contrary to expectations, the difference in the number of moulted flight feathers between the morphs was independent of environmental conditions, as quantified by the abundance of prey. We discuss the potential physiological and behavioural causes for and costs of the observed difference in maintenance functions between colour morphs.

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