Darker eumelanic barn owls better withstand food depletion through resistance to food deprivation and lower appetite

Dreiss, Amélie ; Henry, Isabelle ; Ruppli, Charlène ; Almasi, Bettina ; Roulin, Alexandre

In: Oecologia, 2010, vol. 164, no. 1, p. 65-71

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    The intensity of selection exerted on ornaments typically varies between environments. Reaction norms may help to identify the conditions under which ornamented individuals have a selective advantage over drab conspecifics. It has been recently hypothesized that in vertebrates eumelanin-based coloration reflects the ability to regulate the balance between energy intake and expenditure. We tested two predictions of this hypothesis in barn owl nestlings, namely that darker eumelanic individuals have a lower appetite and lose less weight when food-deprived. We found that individuals fed ad libitum during 24h consumed less food when their plumage was marked with larger black spots. When food-deprived for 24h nestlings displaying larger black spots lost less weight. Thus, in the barn owl the degree of eumelanin-based coloration reflects the ability to withstand periods of food depletion through lower appetite and resistance to food restriction. Eumelanic coloration may therefore be associated with adaptations to environments where the risk of food depletion is high