Harry Potter and the fate of the European barn owl

Pilot project
Erik Verheyen (RBINS)
JEMU partner: 
Carl Vangestel, Massimiliano Virgilio and Gontran Sonet
Project summary: 
The barn owl (Tyto alba) population in Belgium consisted of only a few brooding pairs 40 years ago. The “Kerkuilwerkgroep”, a group of highly engaged citizens, conducted a tremendous effort to protect the barn owl population by placing nest boxes around Flanders. These nest boxes are yearly monitored and checked for brooding success. As a result, the population of barn owls in Flanders has grown substantially, containing an estimated 2250 birds today. In addition, the group has collected specimens and extensive morphological and physiological data on barn owls from road casualties over the past 10 years. From these data, a shift in coloration of the owls has been noticed: while owls used to be exclusively dark, birds encountered today are more and more white coloured with ca 10% of the birds being even completely white. Plumage coloration and spottiness are genetically determined (Roulin and Dijkstra, 2003) and can result from local adaptation to habitat choice (wood vs areal habitat) (Dreiss et al., 2012). However, the change in color may also result from breeding with non-european birds: amongst the road casualties, more and more barn owls are encountered from captivity which may be linked to the Harry Potter hype. The barn owls of Harry Potter and his friends play a prominent role in the movies, which have led to a huge commercial breeding trade of barn owls from around the globe. In the current project, we aim to characterise the genetic diversity of the current Tyto alba population in Belgium and compare this to the genetic diversity from before the Harry Potter hype. This comparison will highlight whether/how much genetic material from foreign subspecies has entered our local population. In the best case scenario, Harry Potter has contributed to the growth of Tyto alba in Europe with no detrimental effects for the species; in the worst case scenario, the import of “exotic” barn owls into Europe has substantially altered the genetic composition of Tyto alba which would provide a scientific basis for a stronger regulation on the import and release of barn owls. Such a regulation is non-existent at this moment. In addition, the suggested approach may yield a SNP panel for the quick identification of exotic specimens, which may facilitate decisions on whether birds in sanctuaries can be released in the wild or have to be euthanised.
Kerkuilenwerkgroep Vlaanderen (Ludo Smets and Isabel Lemahieu), ILVO (Sofie Derycke), University of Lausanne (Alexandre Roulin, Vera Uva, Ana Paula Machado), Swiss ornithological institute (Sylvain Antoniazza)
Lab work progress: 
Feasibility experiment using hyRAD
Data analysis: 
No data yet
Starting date: 
Project status: 
In progress

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith