Specialist predation covaries with colour polymorphism in tawny owls

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Abstract: Understanding intraspecific phenotypic variation in prey specialisation can help to predict how long-term changes in prey availability affect the viability of these phenotypes and their persistence. Generalists are favoured when the main food resources are unpredictable compared to specialists, which track the availability of the main prey and are more vulnerable to changes in the main food resource. Intraspecific heritable melanin-based colour polymorphism is considered to reflect adaptations to different environments. We studied colour morph-specific diet specialisation in a generalist predator, tawny owl (Strix aluco), during offspring food provisioning in relation to mammal prey density. We hypothesised that the grey morph, with higher fitness than the brown in Northern boreal conditions, is more specialised in mammalian prey than the brown morph, which in turn has higher fitness than the grey in the temperate zone. We found a higher diversity of prey delivered to the nest by brown fathers compared to grey ones, which also depended on the overall mammalian prey availability. Brown fathers provided proportionally fewer mammalian prey than grey in poor, but not in favourable mammal prey years. Our results suggest that the brown morph is more generalistic and reacts more strongly to variations in food supply than the grey morph, which may be a beneficial strategy in an unpredictable environment caused by environmental degradation. Significance statement: Diet choice of a species may vary depending on fluctuations in the abundance of their food resource, but also within a population, there can be adaptations to use different food resources. The tawny owl exhibits a grey and a reddish-brown colour morph and is considered a generalist predator eating both mammal and bird prey. We find that the diet of the reddish-brown morph is more diverse than that of the grey. When the tawny owls’ main prey, small mammals, are abundant both colour morphs prey on mammals, but in years with less small mammals, the reddish-brown morph is more prone of switching to small bird predation than the grey. The generalist strategy of the brown morph is likely to be more favourable than a stricter specialisation in small mammals of the grey under recently reoccurring irregularities in small mammal dynamics.


External organisations
  • Novia University of Applied Sciences
  • University of Helsinki
  • Finnish Museum of Natural History
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Evolutionary Biology


  • Diet breadth, Functional response, Melanism, Predator-prey interaction, Vole cycle
Original languageEnglish
Article number45
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication categoryResearch