Background: Owls have developed serrations, comb-like structures, along the leading edge of their wings. Serrations were investigated from a morphological and a mechanical point of view, but were not yet quantitatively compared for different species. Such a comparative investigation of serrations from species of different sizes and activity patterns may provide new information about the function of the serrations.
Results: Serrations on complete wings and on tenth primary remiges of seven owl species were investigated. Small, middle-sized, and large owl species were investigated as well as species being more active during the day and owls being more active during the night. Serrations occurred at the outer parts of the wings, predominantly at tenth primary remiges, but also on further wing feathers in most species. Serration tips were oriented away from the feather rachis so that they faced into the air stream during flight. The serrations of nocturnal owl species were higher developed as demonstrated by a larger inclination angle (the angle between the base of the barb and the rachis), a larger tip displacement angle (the angle between the tip of the serration and the base of the serration) and a longer length. Putting the measured data into a clustering algorithm yielded dendrograms that suggested a strong influence of activity pattern, but only a weak influence of size on the development of the serrations.
Conclusions: Serrations are supposed to be involved in noise reduction during flight and also depend on the aerodynamic properties that in turn depend on body size. Since especially nocturnal owls have to rely on hearing during prey capture, the more pronounced serrations of nocturnal species lend further support to the notion that serrations have an important function in noise reduction. The differences in shape of the serrations investigated indicate that a silent flight requires well-developed serrations.