Specialist predation covaries with colour polymorphism in tawny owls

Two owles

The article has been published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 21.1.2021 and can be found in fulltext on this link: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-021-02986-6


Understanding intraspecific phenotypic variation in prey specialisation can help to predict how long-term changes in prey availability affect the viability of these phenotypes and their persistence. Generalists are favoured when the main food resources are unpredictable compared to specialists, which track the availability of the main prey and are more vulnerable to changes in the main food resource. Intraspecific heritable melanin-based colour polymorphism is considered to reflect adaptations to different environments. We studied colour morph-specific diet specialisation in a generalist predator, tawny owl (Strix aluco), during offspring food provisioning in relation to mammal prey density. We hypothesised that the grey morph, with higher fitness than the brown in Northern boreal conditions, is more specialised in mammalian prey than the brown morph, which in turn has higher fitness than the grey in the temperate zone. We found a higher diversity of prey delivered to the nest by brown fathers compared to grey ones, which also depended on the overall mammalian prey availability. Brown fathers provided proportionally fewer mammalian prey than grey in poor, but not in favourable mammal prey years. Our results suggest that the brown morph is more generalistic and reacts more strongly to variations in food supply than the grey morph, which may be a beneficial strategy in an unpredictable environment caused by environmental degradation.

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