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Darker eumelanic barn owls better withstand food depletion through resistance to food deprivation and lower appetite

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The intensity of selection exerted on ornaments typically varies between environments. Reaction norms may help to identify the conditions under which ornamented individuals have a selective advantage over drab conspecifics. It has been recently hypothesized that in vertebrates eumelanin-based coloration reflects the ability to regulate the balance between energy intake and expenditure. We tested two predictions of this hypothesis in barn owl nestlings, namely that darker eumelanic individuals have a lower appetite and lose less weight when food-deprived. We found that individuals fed ad libitum during 24 h consumed less food when their plumage was marked with larger black spots. When food-deprived for 24 h nestlings displaying larger black spots lost less weight. Thus, in the barn owl the degree of eumelanin-based coloration reflects the ability to withstand periods of food depletion through lower appetite and resistance to food restriction. Eumelanic coloration may therefore be associated with adaptations to environments where the risk of food depletion is high.

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The Swiss National Science Foundation supported this study financially (Grant no. PPOOA-102913 to A. R.). The experiments were approved by the veterinary services of Canton de Vaud (licence no. 2109.0). We thank Oliver Krueger and an anonymous referee for helpful comments on an earlier version of the paper.

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Correspondence to Alexandre Roulin.

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Communicated by Markku Orell.

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Dreiss, A., Henry, I., Ruppli, C. et al. Darker eumelanic barn owls better withstand food depletion through resistance to food deprivation and lower appetite. Oecologia 164, 65–71 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-010-1680-7

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  • Appetite
  • Food depletion
  • Energy homeostasis
  • Melanin
  • Melanocortin