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Similar patterns of local barn owl adaptation in the Middle East and Europe with respect to melanic coloration
Biological Journal of the Linnean Society
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The maintenance of phenotypic variation is a central question in evolutionary biology. A commonly suggested mechanism is that of local adaptation, whereby different phenotypes are adapted to alternative environmental conditions. A recent study in the European barn owl (Tyto alba) has shown that natural selection maintains a strong clinal variation in reddish pheomelanin-based coloration. Studies in the region where phenotypic variation in this owl is the highest in Europe have further demonstrated that dark-reddish and pale-reddish owls exploit open and wooded habitats, predate voles and wood mice, and are long-tailed and short-tailed, respectively. However, it remains unclear as to whether these traits evolved as a consequence of allopatric evolution of dark colour in northern Europe and white colour in southern Europe, during which owls could have also evolved different morphologies and foraging behaviour. This scenario implies that covariation between coloration and foraging behaviour could be a specificity of the European continent, which is not found in other worldwide-distributed populations. To investigate this issue we studied a barn owl population in the Middle East. Our results show that, as in Central Europe, dark-reddish female owls breed more often in the open landscape than their pale-reddish female conspecifics, their offspring are fed with more voles than Muridae, and they are longer-winged and longer-tailed. These findings indicate that in the barn owl the association in females between pheomelanin-based coloration and foraging behaviour and morphology is not restricted to the European continent but may well evolve in sympatry in many barn owl populations worldwide.
allopatry, colour polymorphism, foraging, melanin, sympatry
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