London, March 15 : A pair of biologists at Memorial University in St John's, Canada, has shown that facial feathers are more than just a decoration for a little seabird, which uses the plumes on its head like a cat's whiskers to sense its surroundings while in the dark.
The Whiskered auklet, the most elaborately decorated of the six known species of auklet, is known to be nocturnal.
It lays its eggs in small chambers reached by narrow passageways through jagged lava rocks, which it enters and leaves only at night.
The researcher duo - Sampath Seneviratne and Ian Jones - was wondering whether the striking stiff white feathers protruding from above and below whiskered auklets' eyes, and a dark plume swooping forward from the top of its head might provide the slate-grey bird a sense of touch to guide it in the dark.
They caught 99 birds at night as they left or returned to their nests on Buldir Island, one of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, and then set them in a wooden maze built to resemble the layout of a typical auklet nest.
The researchers then used an infrared video camera to watch the birds as they ducked to avoid overhead obstacles. They also counted how many times the birds bumped their heads.
The researchers said that each auklet shuffled through the darkened maze three times - once with their protruding facial feathers taped back, once with tape on their head but their long feathers free, and once completely unfettered.ccording to them, auklets sent through the course with their feathers taped back bumped their heads more than twice as often as they did when their feathers were free.
"That is novel, and interesting. I think this is the first study that shows that there's a real tactile advantage to having these feathers," Nature magazine quoted Robert Montgomerie of Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, who studies the evolution of ornamental plumage in birds but was not involved in this study, as saying.