Grey plumage in Tawny Owl linked to survival functions in cold environments


Genetic research has revealed that they grey morph of Tawny Owl is associated with key functions that help survival in cold environments.

Tawny Owl is found in woodlands and gardens across much of Europe and parts of western and central Asia. Warm brown and colder grey plumage morphs exist, the former tending to appear in warmer, more humid environments and the latter in colder regions.

A seldom-seen example of a grey-morph Tawny Owl paired with a brown-morph individual (Helge Sorensen).

The study published in Molecular Ecology suggests that as global temperatures rise, the darker brown morph may become more prevalent in Tawny Owl populations in colder regions.

Leader by postdoctoral researcher Miguel Baltazar-Soares, an international team of researchers investigated the link between plumage colour polymorphism and environmental adaptations in Tawny Owl.

The team performed genetic sequencing on 370 Tawny Owls. This revealed gene variants linking colour polymorphism with apparent adaptations to colder areas.

It was found that specific combinations of two genetic variants could accurately predict grey plumage, ranging from 70% to 100% accuracy. These genes likely perform key roles in biological functions essential for survival in extreme weather conditions, such as energy homeostasis, fat deposition and control of starvation responses.

Dr Baltazar-Soares said further studies were needed to explore the function of the genetic variants.

The findings suggest that the coexistence of different colour morphs in Tawny Owl may represent an adaptive response to local climate conditions. Understanding these genetic links could prove important for conserving this nocturnal predator as climate change impacts conditions in colder regions.



Baltazar‐Soares, M, et al. 2024. Genomic basis of melanin‐associated phenotypes suggests colour‐specific environmental adaptations in tawny owls, Molecular Ecology. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.17247