Many Arctic animals are white throughout their life, or turn white seasonally, with no distinct sexual color dimorphism. Common knowledge assumes these animals are white for camouflage in snow-covered landscapes. Presumably, this camouflage adaptation provides concealment from predators, and conversely, concealment for predation. This adaptation appears to be independent of sex. These theories seem logical; however, natural selection could also favor white coloration for other reasons. The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is unusual because in addition to being white, it also shows sexual color dimorphism. Both sexes exhibit delayed plumage maturation. As yearlings, males and females are heavily marked with brown bars and spots on a white-based plumage. Males and females are believed to become whiter as they age. Males become almost pure white, while females retain brown bars and spots. As adults, males and females are distinctly sexually dimorphic in coloration and plumage patterning. These traits are not consistent with most other species of white Arctic animals, or most other species of owls. Snowy Owls are thought to share a common ancestor with the genus Bubo, especially Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) from North America. This separation took place approximately four million years ago. If true, the evolution of white-based plumage in Snowy Owls was probably the result of natural selection favoring camouflage color in snow-covered environments, as Snowy Owls evolved and expanded into Arctic habitat. However, natural selection in concert or compromise with sexual selection, likely drove the evolution of sexual color dimorphism, and delayed plumage maturation, as a result of a snow-free tundra, and 24 hr of daylight during the breeding season. Natural selection appears to have independently favored different male and female plumage coloration and patterning. I propose that adult females evolved white plumage, interrupted with brown bars and spots, predominately for camouflage. Likewise, I propose that adult males evolved white plumage for at least two social signaling strategies: (1) to advertise their relative age, social status, and genotypic quality to females, and (2) to advertise relative age and social status to other males.

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