A fascinating discovery has been made in England about the iconic Atlantic puffins – their bills glow under UV light!
The ornithologist behind the discovery, Jamie Dunning, said, “It was sort of discovered by accident”, after he was wondering whether the birds have Day-Glo beaks, which is similar to a seabird in the same family as puffins, the crested auklets, who also have light-up bills.
Following a difficult day in the lab, he decided to shine a UV light on a puffin carcass and said, “What happened was quite impressive, really”, as he saw the two yellow ridges of the bill light up, revealing real fluorescence. Dunning explained that there must be something within the puffin’s bill that was allowing the UV light to be absorbed and re-emitted, although it’s currently not clear what that might be.
He also explained that it’s likely that the birds already knew about the fluorescent colour as they can see additional dimensions of hues compared to humans. “They can see colours that we can’t comprehend,” Dunning said, after stating that birds have a property called tetrachromatic vision. He said, “It’s hard to say what it would look like [to them], we can’t comprehend that colour space. But almost certainly it’s attractive to the birds. They must be able to see it — that’s the only reason it would exist.”
“The bill of a puffin is forged by generations, hundreds and thousands of years, of sexual selection. There’s a lot going on there. That’s why it’s so colourful and pretty.” The glowing colours have only been observed in dead puffins in Dunning’s lab so far, meaning that live puffins will be tested to ensure that the brightening is still occuring, and that it isn’t a result of decomposition. Due to this planned testing Dunning has proceeded to make sunglasses for the puffins which will be placed on the birds when they are caught for tagging. Dunning added, “This felt like the obvious thing to do.” The results of the study will be published with colleagues at the University of New Brunswick.
I’m Jess Murray, wildlife conservationist, photographer and writer. Follow my Facebook page and Instagram account to be part of the journey. I like to document the natural world and create awareness through my writing so that your future can be sustainable and positive.
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