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J Biol Rhythms. 2017 Oct;32(5):456-468. doi: 10.1177/0748730417722250. Epub 2017 Aug 25.

Ultradian Rhythmicity in Sleep-Wakefulness Is Related to Color in Nestling Barn Owls.

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Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Avian Sleep Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany.
Institute of Neuroinformatics, University of Zürich and ETH Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland.
Department of Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany.


The possession of a rhythm is usually described as an important adaptation to regular changing environmental conditions such as the light-dark cycle. However, recent studies have suggested plasticity in the expression of a rhythm depending on life history and environmental factors. Barn owl ( Tyto alba) nestlings show variations in behavior and physiology in relation to the size of black feather spots, a trait associated with many behavioral and physiological phenotypes including the circadian expression of corticosterone and the regulation of body mass. This raises the possibility that individual spottiness could be associated with rhythmicity in sleep-wakefulness. Owlets showed ultradian rhythms in sleep-wakefulness, with a period length of 4.5 to 4.9 h. The period length of wakefulness and non-REM sleep was shorter in heavily compared to lightly spotted female nestlings, whereas in males, the opposite result was found. Furthermore, male and female nestlings displaying small black spots showed strong rhythmicity levels in wakefulness and REM sleep. This might be an advantage in a stable environment with predictable periodic changes in light, temperature, or social interactions. Heavily spotted nestlings displayed weak rhythms in wakefulness and REM sleep, which might enable them to be more flexible in reactions to unexpected events such as predation or might be a mechanism to save energy. These findings are consistent with previous findings showing that large-spotted nestlings switch more frequently between wakefulness and sleep, resulting in higher levels of vigilance compared to small-spotted conspecifics. Thus, nestlings with larger black feather spots might differently handle the trade-off between wakefulness and sleep, attention, and social interactions compared to nestlings with smaller black spots.


REM sleep; barn owl; coloration; non-REM sleep; ontogeny; period length; rapid eye movement sleep; rhythmicity; ultradian rhythm

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