The Moon cycle exposes nocturnal life to variation in environmental light. However, whether moonlight shapes the fitness of nocturnal species with distinct colour variants remains unknown. Combining data from long-term monitoring, high-resolution global positioning system tracking and experiments using prey, we show that barn owls (Tyto alba) with distinct plumage colourations are differently affected by moonlight. The reddest owls are less successful at hunting and providing food to their offspring during moonlit nights, which associates with lower body mass and lower survival of the youngest nestlings and with female mates starting to lay eggs at low moonlight levels. Although moonlight should make white owls more conspicuous to prey, it either positively affects or does not affect the hunting and fitness of the whitest owls. We experimentally show that, under full-moon conditions, white plumage triggers longer freezing times in prey, which should facilitate prey catchability. We propose that the barn owl’s white plumage, a rare trait among nocturnal predators, exploits the known aversion of rodents to bright light, explaining why, counterintuitively, moonlight has a lesser impact on the whitest owls. Our study provides evidence for the long-suspected influence of the Moon on the evolution of colouration in nocturnal species, highlighting the importance of colour in nocturnal ecosystems.
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The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request. The GPS data used to assess hunting success is stored in Movebank (www.movebank.org) and accessible under the project named ‘Barn owl (Tyto alba)’ (Movebank ID 231741797).
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We thank P. Ducouret for setting the video system to record the voles’ behaviour, J. Buser for his guidance and help in housing the voles in the animal facilities, I. H. Dufresnes for her help with the long-term barn owl database and for providing the picture in Fig. 1, P. Guillemin for helping prepare the data on adult food provisioning, P. Christe for giving us access to the Longworth live traps, K. Safi for helping us with the analysis of the GPS data and the people that have been involved in monitoring our barn-owl population over the last 20 years. We thank L. Keller, B. Milá and J. Delhaye for providing comments on early versions of the manuscript. We acknowledge funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation, ref. 173178, to A.R.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Nature Ecology & Evolution (2019)