They’re one of our most beloved seabirds and are famous for their prominent, brightly-coloured beaks, but now researchers at the University of Nottingham have discovered that puffins have been harbouring a clever ‘super power’ in their beautiful bills.
Working with scientists in the US and Canada, the Nottingham team has become the first to demonstrate photoluminescence in the bill of the Atlantic puffin – meaning that their bills effectively glow under ultraviolet (UV) light.
The phenomenon was first observed in dead puffins, which had all died of natural causes, then recreated in tests on live puffins in the US.
As UV light can be damaging to the eyes, a set of special, protective puffin sunglasses were custom made by collaborators at Goldsmiths, University of London.
The finding has been published in Bird Study, the journal of the British Trust for Ornithology.
Key role in breeding
Jamie Dunning, who was undertaking research at Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences for his master’s degree when he made the discovery, said: “At this stage, we aren’t really sure why puffins need this trait. However, we expect that they can detect it and we suspect that it is linked to sexual signalling, feeding young in their burrows or perhaps even capturing prey. We will be working on these questions in the future.”
The occurrence of photoluminescent markings in some other birds has been previously well documented but this is the first time that scientists have shown this remarkable characteristic in the bills of Fratercula arctica, better known to bird lovers around the globe as the Atlantic puffin.
The bright colours on a puffin’s bill are believed to play a key role in breeding – either by attracting a mate or assisting in foraging for food for its young.
Photoluminescence works when a substance produces light after excitation from a light source in a different wavelength, in this case from ultraviolet or infrared light.
The scientists first saw photoluminescence in February 2017 in a lab at the University of Nottingham.
Each puffin was photographed under a black light torch to document the presence and location of the glowing on areas of the beak.
Sunglasses for puffins
Last year, they recreated the experiment using three live puffins caught on Petit Manan Island in Maine in the US, which is owned and managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service – Main Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
The test posed a tricky ethical dilemma as shining UV light into the birds’ eyes could cause potential damage. To protect the puffins from the light, the scientists worked with the Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths, University of London to develop a specially-shaped opaque eye shield or ‘sunglasses’ made from foam and waterproof neoprene.
Jamie, who is now working as an environmental consultant, added: “We have taken the ethics of this study very seriously – we didn’t shine UV light into the eyes of live puffins at any time. While the bills of live birds were observed under UV light, we fitted them with a pair of custom sunglasses beforehand. All the birds were ringed and then released after just a few minutes.”
Photoluminescence serves a number of functions in nature including deterring predators, luring underwater prey and enhancing signals during mating.
As the glowing regions on the bill are fully developing during the breeding season and shed over the non-breeding season, the scientists believe that the property plays a role in the courtship rituals of the birds. Potentially, the glow could also help chicks to locate their parent’s beak – and the food they are bringing – in the low light conditions of the underground burrows.
Further study is needed into the links between these photoluminescent properties and behaviour and ecology in the wider Auk family, to which puffins belong.
The study also involved collaborators from the University of New Brunswick in Canada, the Universities of Maine, Wisconsin and Long Island in the US, and the Universities of Liverpool and Swansea in the UK.
The scientific paper can be viewed online and will be published in the print edition of Bird Study in mid-February.
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