Jamie Dunning found that the beaks of Atlantic puffins are fluorescent and glow a bright blue when placed under an ultraviolet light. Dunning made the discovery back in February, after shining a UV light on the body of a dead puffin he had at his lab. (“I’m the kind of guy that people send dead birds to,” he told Newsweek at the time.)
He told the CBC that there’s some quality about their bills that absorbs UV light and re-emits it, but he doesn’t know what exactly it is at this point.
He added that birds can see a wider range of colors than humans can, and whatever is going on with the beak must be visible to other birds in a way that it isn’t to people.
“It’s hard to say what it would look like [to them], we can’t comprehend that color space,” he told the CBC. ““But almost certainly it’s attractive to the birds. They must be able to see it — that’s the only reason it would exist.”
Dunning believes it likely has to do with mating. The birds’ iconic orange bills lose their color when the breeding season is over, which indicates that the color is for sexual selection, he told The Independent. That means that other features of the bill— like its fluorescence — may be for a similar purpose.
“The clues are there that this UV is an adaptation for sexual signaling,” he said.
He also noted that puffins aren’t the only bird with fluorescent beaks. The reason he decided to shine the UV light on a puffin’s beak in the first place is because he knew other researchers had observed a similar phenomenon in crested auklets, which are also seabirds.
Dunning now hopes to see if he can try out the UV light on living birds in the wild. For that reason, he’s developing a pair of “sunglasses” that can protect his feathered subjects’ eyes.
He’s also clarified to some concerned social media users that no birds were harmed for this discovery and that none will be in his future research.
We’re hoping he takes many more pictures.