Puffin sunglasses
April 6, 2018 1:05 PM   Subscribe

 
But the radiant colour is almost certainly not being used as a headlight, he said.

He said whatever's making the beak glow is reacting with the UV light waves, and those light waves aren't around in the dark.


What about in the fog? Could they be fog lights? Seems like that might be a useful thing on North Atlantic coasts.

...and then, once they’ve tested it with blacklights and a fog machine, they should try firing up the lasers too.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:17 PM on April 6, 2018 [17 favorites]


Th.y also list.n to .DM and w.ar pony b.ad j.w.lry, and lik. to st.al your E.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:18 PM on April 6, 2018 [9 favorites]


Porgs
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:29 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


PLURffins
posted by 7segment at 1:32 PM on April 6, 2018 [12 favorites]




Black light Puffins! I approve.
posted by Liquidwolf at 1:41 PM on April 6, 2018


Where are my sunglasses, please?
posted by puffyn at 1:43 PM on April 6, 2018 [6 favorites]


lol @ academics being so sheltered they've never even been to a puffin rave
posted by duffell at 1:48 PM on April 6, 2018 [44 favorites]


But the radiant colour is almost certainly not being used as a headlight, he said.

... trying his very best not to openly roll his eyes at the stupidity of the interviewer's question.
posted by biogeo at 1:51 PM on April 6, 2018 [10 favorites]


I hope there are no puffin poffin boffins here who would threaten violence upon anyone not supplying them some.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:55 PM on April 6, 2018 [10 favorites]


more like plurff—dammit 7segment
posted by cortex at 2:01 PM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


This news added years to my life.
posted by Grandysaur at 2:03 PM on April 6, 2018 [7 favorites]


> I hope there are no puffin poffin boffins here who would threaten violence upon anyone not supplying them some.
Puffin bluffin', clearly.


And "This felt like the obvious thing to do" is probably the best sentence that could follow that picture of a puffin wearing oversize aviators.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 2:03 PM on April 6, 2018 [11 favorites]


IT'S NOT THE SAME THING OK it is pokemon foods
posted by poffin boffin at 2:06 PM on April 6, 2018 [10 favorites]


The researcher notes they originally made the observation on dead puffins in the lab. Presumably these were taxidermied.

So to make the observations, they had to do some puffin stuffin'.
posted by biogeo at 2:07 PM on April 6, 2018 [9 favorites]


Incidentally, I'm just starting my new career as DJ Blacklight Puffin.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:12 PM on April 6, 2018 [12 favorites]


So they go on at length about how birds can see colors that humans can't, which is true. Except it seems kinda irrelevant given that humans can see these colors perfectly fine—they just aren't there except under UV. Am I missing something or is the reporter talking nonsense?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:27 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


I was wondering the same thing. I think it means that the beak substrate emits colors in the non-visible (to humans) part of the spectrum, but the puffins can see those wavelengths. And when you shine UV light on them, they then fluoresce to emit visible light (of a different, humanly-visible color).

At least, that’s the closest I can parse what the reporter is saying, connected with what seems to make sense, but you know.
posted by darkstar at 2:39 PM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


A lot of animals have retinal cones that can pick up UV-spectrum light along with stuff in the more familiar human range of color receptors; as far as I can tell (and yeah the article is super-lite pop science writing as far as that goes so not much help), the UV stripes on the bills would show up as a visible "color" along with your reds and greens and blues, so not necessarily some glowing Floyd poster dazzle but discernible at a glance to a puffin in the way that a red stripe on green is to a human with typical vision but not so much to people with dichromatic vision.

Some humans can get a sliver of low-wavelength UV, too (I think this like high-frequency sound is a thing kids often have a sensitivity to which falls off with age), but visible UV isn't terribly bright even for them in mixed lighting settings. Removing all other lighting from context to see just the UV fluorescence of an object is pretty explicitly an artificial experience, all else aside, unless you're trying specifically to model vision that consists solely of UV sensitive receptors.
posted by cortex at 2:46 PM on April 6, 2018 [5 favorites]


I think the article is getting at the implied existence of new qualia of colors in creatures equipped with receptors that we don't have. We have cones that enable us to detect three discrete frequencies of light: a specific red, a specific green, and a specific blue. From the differential activation of those cone cells, we're able to construct the entire visible spectrum, including hues that we aren't specifically sensitive to.

An animal with a fourth specific receptor within the visible spectrum might be able to differentiate between hues that we cannot, and perhaps see colors some distance into the infrared and ultraviolet. An animal with a fourth specific receptor OUTSIDE the visible spectrum is probably able to see even further into the end that receptor is located at.

But the thing is, it is not possible for us to imagine what that would look like. It would look nothing like the glow that we see when illuminating the beaks as illustrated in the article...that technique explicitly relies on the ultraviolet frequencies being absorbed, and the re-emitted at a frequency inside the visible spectrum. What the birds are likely seeing is a new color. one that we can't imagine because it's not available to us.
posted by Ipsifendus at 2:55 PM on April 6, 2018 [21 favorites]


In my spectroscopy classes, I have students test how far their own visible spectra extend. Generally, most of them (college age) can see down to 380nm. A few report that they can see down to 360nm, and every once in a while I’ll get someone who reports that they can see down to 320-340nm or thereabouts. I often wonder if they’re just imagining it, or if they can actually see those wavelengths.

Anyway, when they’re done and They plot their data on the whiteboard, we can see the distributions. Then I tell them that some of them are mutants with superhuman powers (in a literal, if somewhat exaggerated sense).

Sadly, I inform them, my favorite color is one I can no longer see, because I got older and lost the ability to see that beautiful electric violet around 390nm.
posted by darkstar at 3:06 PM on April 6, 2018 [24 favorites]


the beak substrate emits colors in the non-visible (to humans) part of the spectrum


Of course, I meant “reflect” colors. It would be quite something else if puffins were found to emit colors from their beaks...
posted by darkstar at 3:12 PM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


This makes me even more happy that my bands debut album is set to be titled Puffin Release Party.
posted by Annika Cicada at 3:32 PM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


> What the birds are likely seeing is a new color. one that we can't imagine because it's not available to us.

Some shade of blue, I would expect.
posted by GeckoDundee at 3:39 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


An animal with a fourth specific receptor within the visible spectrum might be able to differentiate between hues that we cannot, and perhaps see colors some distance into the infrared and ultraviolet

You mean women?
posted by happyroach at 3:56 PM on April 6, 2018 [7 favorites]


Avian color vision is actually even more wild than this article suggests.

darkstar's and cortex's interpretations are basically correct. The images of the brightly-glowing puffin beaks are due to UV fluorescence, which is when a material absorbs ultraviolet light and then re-emits it at a longer wavelength in the visible spectrum, which humans can see. But the UV-sensitive cones that birds (and many other animals, including bees) possess allow them to see reflected UV light. Their experience of seeing a puffin beak would be quite different than what we see under a black light.

Human S-cones (the ones most sensitive to the blue part of the spectrum) actually respond to ultraviolet light (the longer-wavelength UV-A, at least). However, the lens of the human eye is fairly opaque to UV-A, so very little of the UV-A that reaches our eyes makes it through to the retina. (Shorter wavelength UV can make it through, and is quite damaging, which is why you shouldn't look directly at the sun or an unfiltered black light.) Certain cataract surgeries actually replace the lens with a material that is more transparent to UV-A, granting the patient new ability to see UV-A with their existing S-cones. (It's been suggested that Claude Monet, who had this surgery, changed the way he painted due to this altered color perception.) Some patients who've had this surgery describe being able to see a "new color," described as a sort of extremely intense blue. This is probably due to the fact that the M- and L-cones (those most sensitive to green and red, respectively) are actually responsive to most of the visible spectrum, even blue, but their sensitivity decreases with decreasing wavelength. Blue light normally stimulates S-cones more than M- or L-cones, and it is the ratio of activation that is important for color perception. UV-A, if it makes it to the retina, produces an S-cone to M- and L-cone stimulation ratio that is otherwise not possible, hence the "new color".

However, the situation for birds is different. As the article says, (most) birds are tetrachromats, meaning they have four different cone cell types, including one most sensitive in the UV. For them, UV-A is part of their normal color perception. (I assume their lens is composed slightly differently to make it more transparent to UV-A, but I don't actually know.) This doesn't just mean that they can see UV-A, the way a human who's had cataract surgery can, but that it induces a qualitatively distinct percept from blue light. The best analogy might be the relationship between red and green in human color vision. The L- and M-cones are actually very close to one another in terms of their peak wavelength sensitivity, but qualitatively red and green look very different, and intermediate wavelengths give distinct color percepts like yellow and orange. Birds probably have a range of similarly distinct color percepts all within the "blue-ish" part of the spectrum, as well as distinct UV-A perception. Just as many humans are red-green colorblind, all humans are "colorblind" in the shorter wavelengths of visible light, relative to birds.

But, it gets even crazier! Most birds (including I presume puffins) have something called "oil droplets" in their retinas, which are relatively poorly understood but might give them an even finer set of color discriminations. Oil droplets are transparent but pigmented, and speckled across the retina. It's thought that they essentially act like microscopic color filters. This means that two identical cone cells in two different places on a bird's retina would have different spectral sensitivity functions to incoming light, due to different filtering before they "saw" it. By comparing the relative activation of these two cells, the bird's brain could discriminate relatively tiny differences in the wavelength of light with great precision.

I know we've got some vision researchers on Metafilter, so apologies in advance for elisions and inaccuracies. I was writing off the cuffin' puffin.
posted by biogeo at 4:09 PM on April 6, 2018 [77 favorites]


> What the birds are likely seeing is a new color. one that we can't imagine because it's not available to us.

Some shade of blue, I would expect.


Maybe Octarine.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:24 PM on April 6, 2018 [7 favorites]


I'll never look at Oona and Baba the same way again.
posted by erinfern at 4:28 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


That was fantastic, biogeo. Flagged as such.
posted by clawsoon at 4:44 PM on April 6, 2018 [2 favorites]


Puffins in Canada especially would seem to be close enough to the Magnetic North Pole that the magnetic navigation many birds rely on might not work very well for them, and coastal regions are often overcast enough to make Sun based navigation iffy too.

But we know that it's possible to get a pretty good sunburn on a cloudy day, and that's because the burning rays of shorter wavelength UV pass through the clouds more easily than visible light or near UV, yet Puffins can only see a little way into the near UV, so they would face the same navigational problems the Vikings had when it came to using the Sun for navigation.

The Vikings solved their navigation problem using a "Sun stone" which allowed them to see more or less where the Sun was even through clouds (and even when it was a little below the horizon, as I recall), and I wonder whether Puffins could be using their fluorescent beaks in a similar way.

Because if a Puffin maintained an equal level of brightness in the fluorescent glow from either side of its beak as it flew on a cloudy day, that would mean it was heading directly toward or away from the Sun, and if it had the ability to perceive a constant ratio in the brightness of the two sides, it could maintain a constant heading flying in any direction on a cloudy day.
posted by jamjam at 4:53 PM on April 6, 2018 [12 favorites]


So yes, I know birds can see wavelengths that humans can't, and that they're tetrachromats. The article covers that. My question was: how is any of that relevant to what seems like a pretty straightforward UV fluorescence phenomenon?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:05 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


Was thinking the same thing @jamjam
posted by Capricorn13 at 5:20 PM on April 6, 2018


My question was: how is any of that relevant to what seems like a pretty straightforward UV fluorescence phenomenon?

Unfortunately the article itself isn't really clear as to what the real research question is, and it looks like the original work isn't published yet. The article is mostly impressed by the brightly fluorescing beaks, but you're right that that by itself doesn't mean much.

My guess is that:

1) The bright UV fluorescence is probably an indication that there's high contrast in the UV reflectance around this area as well, though I don't know for sure. This means it should stick out very brightly to other puffins. Therefore it may serve a function in individual identification, mate-quality signalling, or some other communicative function for puffins.

2) I've heard of lots of UV coloration in birds in their feathers, but never before in their beaks. UV coloration in feathers is usually due to structural color (the nano-scale geometry of the feathers differentially reflecting UV light in narrow wavebands), but this probably uses a different mechanism, with a distinct evolutionary history. This is the kind of thing that gets organismal biologists excited.

3) The article mentions that some individuals seem to have the UV coloration in their beaks, and others don't. This kind of natural variability suggests one of the following: a) this trait is not under strong selective pressure; b) this trait is only recently evolved and has yet to penetrate the population; c) this trait is associated with some kind of cost preventing some individuals from possessing it; d) this trait is representative of different evolutionary strategies that different individuals in the population are pursuing. Further work can be done to investigate the fitness consequences of possessing UV-reflective beaks.

Again, those are just my guesses. When the actual work gets published we can see what the author thinks about it.
posted by biogeo at 6:20 PM on April 6, 2018 [4 favorites]


All of this stuff would definitely make a lot more sense if the beaks were UV-reflective as well as UV-fluorescent, that's for sure. Unless they're fluorescing in a part of the spectrum that puffins are extra sensitive to, I suppose. Like maybe they're mainly fluorescing in the puffin-visible near-UV and this violet glow we're seeing is just spillover. Maybe they look very bright indeed if you're a puffin. Bright enough to be obvious even in mixed lighting, perhaps.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:39 PM on April 6, 2018


Because if a Puffin maintained an equal level of brightness in the fluorescent glow from either side of its beak as it flew on a cloudy day, that would mean it was heading directly toward or away from the Sun, and if it had the ability to perceive a constant ratio in the brightness of the two sides, it could maintain a constant heading flying in any direction on a cloudy day.

This is a really interesting idea. I know one of the hypothesized mechanisms for magnetic field sensation in birds (as of like twelve years ago, I haven't kept up with that literature) is that it involves visual changes due to magnetic field-sensitive changes in some photoreceptors' sensitivity in one eye, and magnetic navigation involves basically balancing visual inputs from the two eyes in exactly this way. So maybe this evolved as a means of using the same neural machinery for magnetic navigation, but with the UV fluorescence or reflectance of the beak as the source of visual change rather than magnetic field.

All of this stuff would definitely make a lot more sense if the beaks were UV-reflective as well as UV-fluorescent, that's for sure.

I will say that for the cases I know of for highly UV-reflective plumage in birds, the reflective patches of plumage also fluoresce under UV, and this seems to be used to identify UV-reflective plumage. I'm not really sure why this would be, and I didn't really think about it too hard before this; might have something to do with it being structural color. Maybe the researcher is making the assumption that this holds for the beak coloration as well, but this might not be true.
posted by biogeo at 6:44 PM on April 6, 2018 [4 favorites]


PLURffins

Please help, I need someone to remove this from my recent memory so I can breath again..

Ow, fuck snorting. Snortling. Snortle-chortling. PLURFFINS EEEEEEEEE lasdfjlsdafh

it shouldn't be this funny but help i'm dying over here... now all my old raver memories of all my friends in cartoon gloves and fat pants but now they're all puffins... PLURFINS... with silly UV-glow beaks help meeeee why
posted by loquacious at 6:51 PM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


We don’t need to speculate about this; people with UV vision have been discussed previously and could presumably look at some Puffins for us.

Also Puffin should be capitalized, shouldn’t it?
posted by TedW at 6:53 PM on April 6, 2018


And it's "REAL" florescence. That's mentioned twice in the article. It made me wonder is there fake florescence?
posted by rmmcclay at 7:14 PM on April 6, 2018


I've smelled fake flower essence before, does that count?
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:48 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


This is all just something coincidental to the real research the scientists are doing. A Puffin MacGuffin, in other words.
posted by fedward at 9:03 PM on April 6, 2018 [7 favorites]


Thank you, fedward, I've been holding that in since this afternoon.
posted by biogeo at 9:05 PM on April 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


I inform them, my favorite color is one I can no longer see, because I got older and lost the ability to see that beautiful electric violet

Maybe you can get this power back, when you're even older, darkstar. See Ultra Violet Color Glow after Cataract Surgery.
posted by Rash at 9:35 PM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


The fourth color that birds can see is Squant.
posted by not_on_display at 10:50 PM on April 6, 2018


Scorpions also fluoresce under uv light. I think it’s a meaningless bit of chance chemistry.
posted by Segundus at 4:08 AM on April 7, 2018


Segundus: Scorpions also fluoresce under uv light. I think it’s a meaningless bit of chance chemistry.

Lots of spiders as well. I tend to agree that it looks like chance, especially since spiders have generally bad vision, and even if UV fluorescence was a signal, it would get swamped by light reflectance. But some researchers disagree; for example in crab spiders, where they think it's a sexually selected signal.
posted by dhruva at 5:36 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


Articles like this make me want to become a science reporter. Like, this is really neat and could help connect a lot of people to science and conservation because OMG glowing puffins! but if you actually pay attention to the article and try to understand what's going on, there's a whole lot of nothing there. Just a bunch of frustrating dead ends and red herrings. Maybe some of it is relevant to the research but we'll never know because the reporter didn't make the connection. It's infuriating and it doesn't have to be this bad. I am nobody's idea of a journalist but I feel like even I could have done a better job here. Grr.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:33 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


Fluorescence is when a molecule absorbs light of one wavelength and emits it as light of a lower wavelength. Yellow highlighters have their weird "glowy" appearance because when you shine white light (red+green+blue) at them, some of the blue light is absorbed by the dye (pyranine) and is re-emitted as green. So instead of having the white (red+green+blue) reflected back to you and the highlighter looking white, instead you have "extra" green and reduced blue: red+GREEN+blue, which gives you a greenish-yellow.

Since the highlighter's ink is reflecting back more green light than is hitting it in the first place, it appears to be producing its own light, hence the appearance of glowing.

A puffin's perception of the fluorescent part of the bill would presumably be similar, except that they can see an additional color. So the light falling on the bill is (red+green+blue+UV), which is "puffin white," but some of the UV is absorbed and re-emitted as blue, and a tiny amount of blue is absorbed also (which we can tell because of how the ridge looks faintly yellow to us: it reflects red+green+blue=whitish-yellow, which means it must be absorbing a little blue).

To a puffin, then, the bill would appear (red+green+BLUE+ultraviolet, sort of a glowy highlighter blue, shaded a bit in the direction of whatever color is complementary to UV for puffins ("human white," red+green+blue), and we can't know what "human white" looks like to puffins because we can't perceive the absence of a color we have no receptors for perceiving in the first place.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


And it's "REAL" florescence. That's mentioned twice in the article. It made me wonder is there fake florescence?

No, but there's phosphorescence (glows in the dark) which is often confused with fluorescence (glows in the dark under UV).
posted by Rash at 9:54 AM on April 7, 2018


I wonder if the reporter took what was just an emphatic "real" in the original quote ("it's a real fluorescence" as in, boy, it sure does fluoresce, it's really getting its fluorescence on something fierce) and misunderstood it as a qualifying statement, recasting it as "It's real fluorescence" as in its genuine out of a misunderstanding. Both renderings are ambiguous enough that it's hard to say just from the text we have.
posted by cortex at 11:04 AM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think this is just a classical example of the Dunning-Puffin effect, so we should'nt read too much into it.
posted by Dumsnill at 7:08 PM on April 7, 2018


OMG by the time we're done critiquing, the journalist who wrote the article will want to go live in a monastery.



Which is probably where they belong there I said it



I KID, I kid...it's a neat article, despite our kvetching.
posted by darkstar at 7:29 PM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


I don't get the plurffins joke
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:41 AM on April 8, 2018


PLUR is a motto of the rave/EDM community. It means “Peace, Love, Unity and Respect”.

There’s a PLUR handshake, with a “kandi” exchange, too.


So, puffins sporting glow-in-the-dark beaks as if they were at a rave = PLURffins!
posted by darkstar at 10:09 AM on April 8, 2018


A few report that they can see down to 360nm, and every once in a while I’ll get someone who reports that they can see down to 320-340nm or thereabouts. I often wonder if they’re just imagining it, or if they can actually see those wavelengths
This seems both readily amenable to double-blind testing, and a useful (if perhaps a bit off-topic) exercise in evaluating scientific claims. Fun extra-credit project for the super-motivated?
posted by eotvos at 10:56 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


Thanks, darkstar
posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:05 AM on April 9, 2018


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