A link between eumelanism and calcium physiology in the barn owl

Naturwissenschaften. 2006 Sep;93(9):426-30. doi: 10.1007/s00114-006-0128-8. Epub 2006 Jun 24.


In many animals, melanin-based coloration is strongly heritable and is largely insensitive to the environment and body condition. According to the handicap principle, such a trait may not reveal individual quality because the production of different melanin-based colorations often entails similar costs. However, a recent study showed that the production of eumelanin pigments requires relatively large amounts of calcium, potentially implying that melanin-based coloration is associated with physiological processes requiring calcium. If this is the case, eumelanism may be traded-off against other metabolic processes that require the same elements. We used a correlative approach to examine, for the first time, this proposition in the barn owl, a species in which individuals vary in the amount, size, and blackness of eumelanic spots. For this purpose, we measured calcium concentration in the left humerus of 85 dead owls. Results showed that the humeri of heavily spotted individuals had a higher concentration of calcium. This suggests either that plumage spottiness signals the ability to absorb calcium from the diet for both eumelanin production and storage in bones, or that lightly spotted individuals use more calcium for metabolic processes at the expense of calcium storage in bones. Our study supports the idea that eumelanin-based coloration is associated with a number of physiological processes requiring calcium.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bird Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Bone and Bones / physiology
  • Calcium / physiology*
  • Color
  • Feathers
  • Melanins / physiology*
  • Melanosis / physiopathology*
  • Strigiformes / physiology*


  • Melanins
  • Calcium