Journal article

Melanic color-dependent antipredator behavior strategies in barn owl nestlings

The arms race between predators and prey has led to morphological and behavioral adaptations. Different antipredator strategies can coexist within a population if each strategy is the result of a trade-off with competing demands. Antipredator behavior can be associated with morphological traits, like color patterns, either because in the context of sexual selection, coloration signals the ability to avoid predators or because coloration is a naturally selected trait useful in avoiding predators. Because in the barn owl (Tyto alba), heritable eumelanic plumage coloration is associated with the glucocorticoid-dependent response to stress, we tested whether antipredator behavior is also related to this trait. Compared with small-spotted nestlings, individuals displaying larger black spots hissed more intensely in the presence of humans, feigned death longer, had a lower breathing rate under stress, and were more docile when handled. Cross-fostering experiments showed that the covariation between the spot size and the duration of feigning death was inherited from the biological mother, whereas covariation between spot size and docility was inherited from the biological father. Our results confirm that melanin-based coloration is associated with suites of behavioral traits, which are under both genetic and environmental influence. Coloration can thus evolve as a direct or indirect response to predation, but it can also be a signal of antipredator strategies to potential mates.


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