, Volume 187, Issue 1, pp 61–73 | Cite as

Colour polymorphism in owls is linked to light variability

  • Arianna Passarotto
  • Deseada Parejo
  • Vincenzo Penteriani
  • Jesús M. Avilés
Behavioral ecology –original research


Owls show an astonishing variation in their degree of colour polymorphism, although the exact mechanisms driving such variation remain controversial. Here we address this fundamental question by considering information on all extant owls and recent advances in comparative methods in the frame of three mutually non-exclusive evolutionary scenarios. In addition, we study for the first time whether the evolution of influential ecological characters facilitated the evolution of colour polymorphism (or vice versa). In agreement with the niche divergence hypothesis, we found that species living under more variable luminal conditions, i.e., species with diurnal and crepuscular habits and those inhabiting in a mixture of open and closed habitats, were more likely to show colour polymorphism. Correlated evolution analyses revealed that a change in the luminal niche might be a fundamental requisite for the evolution of colour polymorphism. Moreover, polymorphism was more frequent among owl species occupying lower trophic levels, which could be explained by a particularly high selection for crypsis on small predator owls. Our results, thus, provide support for the idea that colour polymorphism in owls is an adaptive character likely maintained by the selective advantage of morphs under different environmental conditions via disruptive selection mechanisms.


Activity rhythm Comparative methods Disruptive selection Luminosity Owls polymorphism 



Liam Revell, Alejandro González-Voyer, Paula Stockley and Liane Hobson kindly provided advice about different issues related to the usage of comparative methods. We thank Alexandre Roulin and one anonymous referee for their useful criticisms on an early draft of the paper. This research was not funded.

Author contribution statement

AP, DP, VP and JMA conceived the study design. AP collected data. AP and JMA performed the analyses. AP, DP, VP and JMA wrote the manuscript.

Supplementary material

442_2018_4128_MOESM1_ESM.docx (779 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 748 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology, Experimental Station of Arid Zones (EEZA)Consejo Superior de Investigaciones CientíficasAlmeríaSpain
  2. 2.Zoology Unit, Department of Anatomy, Cellular Biology and ZoologyExtremadura UniversityBadajozSpain
  3. 3.Research Unit of Biodiversity (UMIB, UO-CSIC-PA)Oviedo UniversityMieresSpain
  4. 4.Pyrenean Institute of Ecology (IPE)Consejo Superior de Investigaciones CientíficasSaragossaSpain

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