New Atlantic Puffin Research Sheds Light on Their Fluorescent Beaks

Saturday, 07 April 2018 - 2:03PM
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Saturday, 07 April 2018 - 2:03PM
New Atlantic Puffin Research Sheds Light on Their Fluorescent Beaks
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Fred Yost/USFWS

Out of all the scientific discoveries made recently, "puffins have glowing beaks" would be a tough one to guess.

But when ornithologist (the technical term for "bird scientist") Jamie Dunning looked at an Atlantic puffin under UV light back in February, he discovered that the puffin's beak lit up as if it were a neon sign or a glow stick. He was testing for something completely different - whether or not the birds' more complex retinas would respond to colors in the ultraviolet range - so the glowing beaks came as a surprise.

See for yourself:




Scientists have known since 2011 that a "bird's eye view" is actually fairly advanced, and that many species of birds are capable of seeing more colors than just what shows up on their plumage. While humans can see three basic colors of light, which are blue, red, and green (and any combination of those three colors), birds have "tetrachromatic vision," which means their retinas can pick up a fourth basic color that we humans can't. 

And while describing this "fourth color" would be like explaining three dimensions to a two-dimensional character in Flatland, suffice to say that this fourth color extends into the ultraviolet range of the light spectrum. What it means is that other puffins can likely see more colors on their beaks than we see, and this somehow connects to their glowing UV beaks.

Now, Dunning is taking a more thorough look at what makes a puffin's beak fluorescent under UV light. Now that he's working more directly with the beaks, he's using some custom puffin-sized sunglasses to make sure his birds don't hurt their eyes under the harsher light needed for the experiment.

If the idea of "puffin sunglasses" sounds silly to you, rest assured that you have no idea:




So far, the working explanation for the puffins' fluorescent beaks is that it's part of their mating process. The UV-only colors likely look extremely flashy to those with enough retina cones to see it, and the glowing beaks are the closest we humans can get to seeing that. In a statement made to CBC, Dunning described it this way:

Opening quote
"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."
Closing quote


Since these former dinosaurs are now listed as "vulnerable" on the list of threatened species, their mating habits are going to become more important as try to keep them alive. So we'll need to know as much about their glowing beaks as they can, if there is truly a connection here.

Once the Atlantic puffin is no longer in danger, then we can discuss throwing ultraviolet raves with these birds.

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