A recent genetic discovery has revealed that the light gray color of the gray owl is linked to important functions that help the bird survive in cold environments. As global temperatures increase, brown owls living in colder regions are likely to have a darker brown coloration.

Coloration in animals and plants is a biological feature that has long fascinated biologists. Different forms of color have been developed through evolution to aid in a variety of natural interactions. Coloration can help animals blend into their surroundings to avoid predators or attract mates, and can even be linked to physical characteristics conferred by pigments.

The tawny owl is a nocturnal bird of prey that can be found in the forests of Europe and western Siberia and ranges in color between light brown and dark brown. It is believed that the coexistence of the two color forms is due to their adaptation to the surrounding environment. Dark colored individuals are consistently found in hot and humid environments, while light gray individuals are typically found in cold, dry, and snowy environments such as northern Europe.

“Based on this hypothesis, it is predicted that warmer climates and less snow may lead to a shift to darker plumage in colder regions dominated by gray owls,” says the postdoctoral researcher. are Miguel Baltazar-Soareswho led an international team composed of researchers from the University of Turku in Finland, and the University of Lund and the University of Linkoping in Sweden.

However, conclusive links between feather color polymorphism and different environments have not yet been established. In a recent study, researchers collected and sequenced the entire tawny owl genome for the first time and then screened the genomes of 370 tawny owl specimens. The researchers found gene variants that link color polymorphisms and possible adaptations to cold environments.

The researchers discovered that a combination of two genetic variants could predict gray coloration in owls with 70% to 100% accuracy. These same genes are also likely involved in biological functions that are important for owl survival in extreme climates. These functions include energy homeostasis, fat storage, and the control of starvation responses, which can be interpreted as adaptations to local environmental conditions.

According to Dr. Baltazar-Soares, the functionality of these genetic variants will need to be further confirmed in future studies. Nevertheless, these results suggest that these symmetric color forms may be adaptive responses to climate conditions.