Social huddling and physiological thermoregulation are related to melanism in the nocturnal barn owl
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Endothermic animals vary in their physiological ability to maintain a constant body temperature. Since melanin-based coloration is related to thermoregulation and energy homeostasis, we predict that dark and pale melanic individuals adopt different behaviours to regulate their body temperature. Young animals are particularly sensitive to a decrease in ambient temperature because their physiological system is not yet mature and growth may be traded-off against thermoregulation. To reduce energy loss, offspring huddle during periods of cold weather. We investigated in nestling barn owls (Tyto alba) whether body temperature, oxygen consumption and huddling were associated with melanin-based coloration. Isolated owlets displaying more black feather spots had a lower body temperature and consumed more oxygen than those with fewer black spots. This suggests that highly melanic individuals display a different thermoregulation strategy. This interpretation is also supported by the finding that, at relatively low ambient temperature, owlets displaying more black spots huddled more rapidly and more often than those displaying fewer spots. Assuming that spot number is associated with the ability to thermoregulate not only in Swiss barn owls but also in other Tytonidae, our results could explain geographic variation in the degree of melanism. Indeed, in the northern hemisphere, barn owls and allies are less spotted polewards than close to the equator, and in the northern American continent, barn owls are also less spotted in colder regions. If melanic spots themselves helped thermoregulation, we would have expected the opposite results. We therefore suggest that some melanogenic genes pleiotropically regulate thermoregulatory processes.
KeywordsHuddling Melanin Metabolic rate Oxygen consumption Pleiotropy Temperature Thermoregulation
We thank Cécile A. Dreiss, Anne-Lyse Ducrest and two anonymous referees for their constructive comments.
Author contribution statement
PB conducted the field and laboratory work on body temperature, a project designed by BA, LJ and AR. RS, PB & MG designed the oxygen consumption experiment and RS conducted this experiment and analysed the data. NV analysed the social thermoregulation videos, a project designed by AD. AD and AR supervised the project and wrote the manuscript.
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