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Last updated at 10:23 GMT, Friday, 04 March 2011

Owls in Finland changing colour, scientists say

Summary

25 February 2011

Scientists in Finland say warmer winters in recent years are causing some of the country's owls to change colour. Research done at the University of Helsinki suggests brown owls are better able to survive the warmer weather than grey-feathered owls.

Reporter:
Victoria Gill

Tawny owl

Tawny owls can be either brown or grey

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Despite their name, tawny owls actually come in two colours. And in Finland, the freezing, snowy winters give pale grey birds a camouflage advantage over their darker brown-feathered counterparts. But as the Finnish winters get milder, the grey owls are disappearing.

The University of Helsinki team gathered 30 years' worth of genetic and population data on tawny owls. They found that the birds inherited their plumage colour from their parents. The grey tawnys, as well as being better hidden from predators in the snow, seem to be endowed with other genetic advantages that make them healthier and stronger. But despite this, the brown owl population is now overtaking that of the greys, because the warmer winters have improved the brown owls' chances of survival.

The lead researcher, Dr Patrik Karell, said that this showed that the birds were evolving in response to climate change, so the tawny owl gene pool is actually getting browner. This is the first evidence of climate change having such an effect in the animal kingdom.

Victoria Gill, BBC News

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Vocabulary

tawny owls

a kind of owl, which is either brown or grey (although the colour tawny on its own usually means yellowish-brown)

a camouflage advantage

a better disguise or way of hiding

counterparts

here, other tawny owls

milder

warmer

plumage colour

feather colour

predators

hunting animals

endowed with

supplied with

in response to

in reaction to

gene pool

set of genes or genetic code (for a species)

the animal kingdom

the set of all animals

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