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Science

Scientists Discover That Puffin Beaks Are Fluorescent (www.cbc.ca) 36

A scientist in England discovered that the bills of Atlantic puffins glow like freshly cracked glow sticks when under a UV light. CBC.ca reports of how ornithologist Jamie Dunning stumbled upon the discovery: Dunning normally works with twites, another type of bird, but he had been wondering if puffins had Day-Glo beaks for a while, since crested auklets -- seabirds in the same family -- also have light-up bills. So one January day, while having a "troubling" time in the lab, he threw off the lights and shone a UV light on a puffin carcass. "What happened was quite impressive, really," he said. The two yellow ridges on the puffin's bill -- called the lamella and the cere -- lit up like a firefly. And it's real fluorescence, Dunning emphasizes: something about those parts of the puffin bill is allowing that UV light to be absorbed and re-emitted as a bright glowing light.

The fact some birds have this quality and some birds don't indicates the fluorescence certainly has some use for the puffins, Dunning said, but he's not sure what that use might be. "The bill of a puffin is forged by generations, hundreds and thousands of years, of sexual selection. There's a lot going on there. That's why it's so colorful and pretty." But the radiant color is almost certainly not being used as a headlight, he said. He said whatever's making the beak glow is reacting with the UV light waves, and those light waves aren't around in the dark.

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Scientists Discover That Puffin Beaks Are Fluorescent

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  • Oh come on ./ can't i post a joke?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    LOL

  • by ChrisMaple ( 607946 ) on Sunday April 08, 2018 @11:47AM (#56401795)

    Contrary to the claim of the article, there are some human females with tetrachromatic vision.

    Why are the images in the article of such poor quality?

    • by AC-x ( 735297 )

      Contrary to the claim of the article, there are some human females with tetrachromatic vision.

      Indeed, although their 4th color receptor always lies somewhere between red and green, which gives better color differentiation but doesn't extend the range of visible colors like birds' UV tetrachromacy does.

    • it has even been reasonably estimated that 2-3% of females have the gene [wikipedia.org]. It's also responsible for color blindness in males, as it is less sensitive to light, but in females they can also have a working copy of all 3 regular ones making them true tetrachromats. Technically the rods in our eyes for low light vision have a weak color range - average humans see 3 colors and a grayish color.
    • Tetrachromacy in humans is very rare (the genes for it may not be, but actually functioning tetrachromacy is), and not at all relevant to the focus of the article.

      Why are the images in the article of such poor quality?

      How good do they need to be? I can see a puffin, and I can see the glowing stripes on its beak. Maybe the guy only had his phone on him, but that's more than enough to demonstrate the effect.

      Or possibly it's one of those weird javascript replacement things and you're not actually seeing the full res images. I dunno.

    • Re:Tetrachromats (Score:5, Insightful)

      by PPH ( 736903 ) on Sunday April 08, 2018 @12:21PM (#56401943)

      This is slightly different than tetrachromacy. Birds can see into the UV range. But the puffins' beaks are fluorescing in the visible (to humans) spectrum. UV reflectivity is a different thing and that would result in patterns not visible to humans being perceived by birds. But that wouldn't be testable using the methods proposed in TFA. You'd still need a camera with a UV sensor to record UV reflective patterns.

      Since this fluorescent effect only presents itself under low visible light/high UV light conditions, the question is: where does one find such an environment? The answer might be; under water. Short wavelength light penetrates water to a greater extent than longer (redder) light. And since puffins feed under water, this effect might be useful to attract prey.

      • Since this fluorescent effect only presents itself under low visible light/high UV light conditions, the question is: where does one find such an environment? The answer might be; under water.

        I dunno. I can think of a few nightclubs/discos with that combination...

      • The sun's position in the sky is useful for navigation. Except when it's a heavy cloud day like happens in alaska a lot. There's lot of light but now you can't find the position of the sun. But there are two signals that can still tell you where the sun is located. One is polarized light. Since scattering depolarizes, only the direct sun light retains any residual polarization. But this is a very faint signal. It's thought that viking calcite stones used this and some people think pigeons might be

      • UV light conditions, the question is: where does one find such an environment?

        The answer can also be: under twilight conditions. At dusk and dawn, the relative amount of UV -as compared to visible light- is much higher. You can easily check this by looking at e.g. a flurescent marker, which is much more pronounced at that time of day.

  • Puffin's colourful beaks are an outer layer which falls off after the breeding season.

    Their jaws have a flexible hinge which allows them to carry more fish at once.

  • ...but he's not sure what that use might be

    Oh, for fuck's sake; really?? "A glowing bill on a seabird; hmm..." This is indeed a tough one, folks... could it be (this is a long shot) to attract prey??

    • by Megol ( 3135005 )

      More likely to attract mates.

      I don't think you understand what "not sure" means. Anyone can speculate.

  • It says to the other sex:

    "Here I am, huffin' and puffin' until I blow your nest down."

  • No mystery (Score:5, Insightful)

    by physicsphairy ( 720718 ) on Sunday April 08, 2018 @12:55PM (#56402135) Homepage

    "The bill of a puffin is forged by generations, hundreds and thousands of years, of sexual selection. There's a lot going on there. That's why it's so colorful and pretty." But the radiant color is almost certainly not being used as a headlight, he said. He said whatever's making the beak glow is reacting with the UV light waves, and those light waves aren't around in the dark.

    Your laundry detergent, highlighters, even paint on coke cans all have UV dyes in them. The reason is not because humans can see in UV or because they need these objects to glow in the dark. The dyes make them appear artificially bright during the day by emitting the converted UV light in addition to the reflected visible light. In as much as brightly colored beaks are important for sexual selection, the fluorescent pigments are part of the trick.

  • I thought I didn't care about this when I read the title. After reading the rest I care about this an order of magnitude less.
  • So one January day, while having a "troubling" time in the lab, he threw off the lights and shone a UV light on a puffin carcass.

    Sounds like the puffin was having a worse day than he was.

  • Makes Puffins look hot to other puffins.

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