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Specialist predation covaries with colour polymorphism in tawny owls

Cite this dataset

Karell, Patrik; Kohonen, Kio; Koskenpato, Katja (2021). Specialist predation covaries with colour polymorphism in tawny owls [Dataset]. Dryad.


Understanding intraspecific phenotypic variation in prey specialisation can help to predict how long-term changes in prey availability affect the viability of these phenotypes and their persistence. Generalists are favoured when the main food resources are unpredictable compared to specialists, which track the availability of the main prey and are more vulnerable to changes in the main food resource. Intraspecific heritable melanin-based colour polymorphism is considered to reflect adaptations to different environments. We studied colour morph-specific diet specialisation in a generalist predator, tawny owl (Strix aluco), during offspring food provisioning in relation to mammal prey density. We hypothesised that the grey morph, with higher fitness than the brown in Northern boreal conditions, is more specialised in mammalian prey than the brown morph, which in turn has higher fitness than the grey in the temperate zone. We found a higher diversity of prey delivered to the nest by brown fathers compared to grey ones, which also depended on the overall mammalian prey availability. Brown fathers provided proportionally fewer mammalian prey than grey in poor, but not in favourable mammal prey years. Our results suggest that the brown morph is more generalistic and reacts more strongly to variations in food supply than the grey morph, which may be a beneficial strategy in an unpredictable environment caused by environmental degradation.

Significance statement

Diet choice of a species may vary depending on fluctuations in the abundance of their food resource, but also within a population, there can be adaptations to use different food resources. The tawny owl exhibits a grey and a reddish-brown colour morph and is considered a generalist predator eating both mammal and bird prey. We find that the diet of the reddish-brown morph is more diverse than that of the grey. When the tawny owls’ main prey, small mammals, are abundant both colour morphs prey on mammals, but in years with less small mammals, the reddish-brown morph is more prone of switching to small bird predation than the grey. The generalist strategy of the brown morph is likely to be more favourable than a stricter specialisation in small mammals of the grey under recently reoccurring irregularities in small mammal dynamics.


The dataset was collected in Southern Finland 2013-2018.

Usage notes

Please find more information in the attached README file


Academy of Finland, Award: 309992

Academy of Finland, Award: 314108

Jenny ja Antti Wihurin Rahasto

Societas pro Fauna et Flora Fennica

Academy of Finland, Award: 309992

Academy of Finland, Award: 314108