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What Can Owls Tell Us About Our Health?

Evolutionary biologist Nicolas Salamin explains how studying barn owls suggests that color tells us something about our health.

Birds are beautiful, with every color of the rainbow found in feathers. But does all that color signal something about the nature of the birds themselves? According to Dr. Nicolas Salamin, an evolutionary biologist and faculty member at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, feather color is a signal of a bird’s ability to fight off parasites.

Looking at barn owls, he discovered in a recent paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology that many of the genes that control feather color are also found in people, where they play a key role in regulating human health. These genes likely play a similar purpose in barn owls, determining resistance to parasites.

Due to the multiple functions of these genes, healthier owls are also redder and more spotted: a color difference not missed by owls when searching for mates,

To hear Curiouser & Curiouser host Jai Ranganathan interview Dr. Salamin, click on the podcast player above.

Music for Curiouser and Curiouser is provided by Jamie Miller and by David Matheson.