Barn owls are skilled nocturnal hunters, swooping across open landscapes to scout out small rodents that scurry below. But scientists have long been puzzled by a trait that seems like it would work against the birds during their nighttime prowls. Some barn owls boast a brilliant white plumage—an unusual feature for an animal that should, in theory, need to remain inconspicuous against the darkened sky.
The bellies of Tyto alba, as the common barn owl is formally known, can range in color from dark red to bright white. The reason for this variation in hue hasn’t been clear, but researchers behind a new study in Nature Ecology & Evolution suspected that white barn owls would be especially disadvantaged during the full moon, when light from the hovering celestial body would make them particularly visible to prey.
“As it turns out,” study authors Luis Martín San José García, Alexandre Roulin and Almut Kelber write in the Conversation, “we couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Read more from Brigit Katz with the Smithsonian Magazine here.