Jamie Dunning, a U.K. ornithologist, was experimenting in his lab when he accidentally discovered that puffins’ beaks emit a fluorescent glow under ultraviolet light.
“It was sort of discovered by accident,” he told the CBC. “What happened was quite impressive, really.”
Dunning had been struggling with his usual work in the lab one day and decided to shine a UV light on the carcass of a puffin that happened to be there. To his surprise, the yellow stripes that decorated the dead bird’s beak started to light up like a glow stick.
'[birds have] additional color cones in their retina that are sensitive to ultraviolet range.'
I exposed some of my specimens to UV light.
The Puffins bill was pretty cool, I wonder if it's related to signalling? #Ornithology pic.twitter.com/eZTbrmi0y5
— Jamie (@JamieDunning) February 8, 2018
While this kind of display isn’t visible to the naked human eye — we can only see a limited degree of the UV spectrum — it may be somewhat visible to birds.
“We’ve known for a while certain birds can see a different degree of the UV spectrum [than humans],” said Dunning. “They can see colours that we can’t comprehend.”
While Dunning couldn’t definitively say how or why the bird’s bill glows, he’s convinced it serves some important purpose.
“Almost certainly it’s attractive to the birds. They must be able to see it — that’s the only reason it would exist.”
This trippy revelation has redirected Dunning’s studies somewhat. He’s now examining live puffins to ensure that the glow wasn’t simply a side effect of decomposition and is working to figure out what the purpose of the glow might be.
However, he and his colleagues can’t just go around shining UV lights in the poor birds’ faces. First, they must ensure the puffins are wearing the right protective gear: custom sunglasses.
To study the ultraviolet properties of the puffins bill, we have had to design something to protect their eyes from the light.
These are our prototype auk 'sunglasses', designed at @designdotgold. #ornithology pic.twitter.com/LMCvdl3sv3
— Jamie (@JamieDunning) March 29, 2018
“We’ve actually had some printed in the shape of aviators, just for the fun of it,” Dunning said.
Dunning is collaborating with scientists at the University of New Brunswick to publish a paper about the florescent beaks in the near future. Right now, however, he’s busy studying the sunglasses-wearing birds in the wild.