Some really cool studies have been done at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute in Cape Town by Arjun Amar to investigate the two colour morphs of the black sparrowhawk (Accipiter melanoleucus). These majestic birds are either a white or black morph. A new paper has just come out showing that one of the factors that may be keeping these morphs going is the difference in hunting success that they face. Black morphs, unsurprisingly because of their colour, have a higher success in low light levels, while their white breather have the opposite success rates. These success rates tie in with the breeding season of these morphs and may go a long way to explaining the variation in morph distribution across the species South African range. Abstract below:
Tate et al. (2016) Differential foraging success across a light level spectrum explains the maintenance and spatial structure of colour morphs in a polymorphic bird. Ecology Letters
Detectability of different colour morphs under varying light conditions has been proposed as an important driver in the maintenance of colour polymorphism via disruptive selection. To date, no studies have tested whether different morphs have selective advantages under differing light conditions. We tested this hypothesis in the black sparrowhawk, a polymorphic raptor exhibiting a discrete white and dark morph, and found that prey provisioning rates differ between the morphs depending on light condition. Dark morphs delivered more prey in lower light conditions, while white morphs provided more prey in brighter conditions. We found support for the role of breeding season light level in explaining the clinal pattern of variation in morph ratio across the species range throughout South Africa. Our results provide the first empirical evidence supporting the hypothesis that polymorphism in a species, and the spatial structuring of morphs across its distribution, may be driven by differential selective advantage via improved crypsis, under varying light conditions.
These results tie in nicely with previous work that has looked at the ratio of morphs across South Africa. This work found that the Cape peninsula had a very high proportion of black morphs but that this was unlikely to do with a founder effect. More likely it was because of higher rainfall rates during the breeding season, fitting nicely with the recent hunting findings. However, as is often the case in biological systems, hunting and light are not the only potential drivers for polymorphism in this species. It turns out that black morphs have a lower parasite load than white morphs.
The great thing about this particular subsection of research on the black sparrowhawk is that it all initially came from the observation that there seemed to be more black morphs in Cape Town than normal. This simple natural history note has spawned a growing number of scientific papers and led to wonderful new insights into evolution. So the next time you notice something when walking about just think that it might be far more interesting than may initially be apparent!
Other black sparrowhawk papers:
Amar et al. (2014) Clinal variation in the morph ratio of Black Sparrowhawks Accipiter melanoleucus in South Africa and its correlation with environmental variables. Ibis
Lei et al. (2013) Differential Haemoparasite Intensity between Black Sparrowhawk (Accipiter melanoleucus) Morphs Suggests an Adaptive Function for Polymorphism. PLoS ONE