Puffin beak’s invisible secret now revealed with UV light

9 Apr 2018

Image: Lab Photo/Shutterstock

Unbeknownst to ornithologists for all this time is the fact that a puffin’s beak is luminescent under UV light, possibly revealing how it attracts a mate.

The puffin’s most notable feature is its colourful beak, leading to it sometimes being referred to as a ‘sea parrot’. Little did we know, however, that it also hid a secret that could reveal how it really stands out to a potential mate.

According to The Independent, an ornithologist associated with the University of Nottingham called Jamie Dunning had always suspected that the colourful display on their beaks that we see is only a part of the full picture.

Unlike humans, birds such as the puffin can see wavelengths at the UV end of the spectrum.

Wondering whether there was anything we missed in our understanding of the creature, Dunning decided to turn the UV light on a dead puffin he had in his freezer for research.

“I’m the kind of guy people send dead birds to,” Dunning said to The Independent. “I had a UV light because we do a lot of spider stuff in the lab and a lot of them and scorpions glow in UV light, so I just turned the torch on the puffin and took a photo of what I saw.”

In particular, the yellow ridges of the colourful beak harboured the ability to shine on the UV spectrum and would be capable of being seen by other birds.

Possibly for sexual selection

Wanting to make absolutely sure that living puffins also exhibited the same feature, Dunning had to use a live puffin and put it under a UV light.

To the amusement of many online, the only way to do this test without damaging the puffin’s vision was by creating a bespoke pair of puffin sun-blockers, which looked more than a little odd on the creature.

Having confirmed its appearance in live puffins also, Dunning and colleagues in Canada have submitted their findings to their academic peers and are awaiting the publishing of a paper detailing the findings.

Speaking of what could be the reason behind the dazzling UV display, Dunning said the likelihood is that it signals a puffin’s sexual prowess over others.

“Their ornamentation develops specifically for the breeding season, so the clues are there [that] it’s for sexual selection and therefore … this UV is an adaptation for sexual signalling,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic