Plumage pigmentation is fundamental to a bird's phenotype, with pigment deposition causing relative crypsis or conspicuousness, depending on the environmental context. Geographic variation in plumage melanin tends to be predictable, suggesting that aspects of climate cause local matching of plumage to environment via genetic adaptation. Ecogeographic rules describe this predictability: Gloger's rule predicts that populations in wetter and warmer environments will be more pigmented; Bogert's Rule predicts more pigmentation in cold environments. The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) exhibits extensive geographic variation in the degree of melanin-based pigmentation. We examined fine-scale spatial variation in owl plumage melanism along environmental gradients in southwestern North America. We tested whether variation is explained by either of two non-mutually exclusive hypotheses: (1) a history of allopatric divergence between subspecies or (2) in situ local adaptation consistent with ecogeographic rules. The allopatric divergence hypothesis predicts a bimodal distribution of plumage melanism, with a geographic cline across a zone of secondary contact, whereas the local adaptation hypothesis predicts that climate explains variation independently of geography. Using a colorimeter, we measured coloration in 101 museum specimens of breeding-season Great Horned Owls that had been obtained from variable environments and elevations. Specimens previously identified as separate subspecies were distinguishable by colorimetry. Plumage lightness, however, was continuously distributed, rather than bimodal. While accounting for males having reduced pigmentation relative to females, linear models revealed that lighter plumage was associated with low latitude, low elevation, high temperature, and low precipitation. These findings suggest that variation in Great Horned Owl plumage pigmentation is best understood as continuous ecogeographic variation, consistent with ecogeographic predictions, and currently maintained in situ along multiple environmental gradients that characterize the “sky island” topography of the southwestern USA.

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